Please bring it back for season 3, and alternatively, please watch seasons 1 and 2!
Just as some believe anti-violence in film can be achieved by sickening the audience with ultraviolence, any cinematic depiction of racism necessarily traffics in the imagery and narratives of racism. And necessary they may be in turn, all the brutal historical dramas which bring atrocities to vivid life beg the question: isn’t there another way? Perhaps there have been or could be movies about racism that forgo such descriptions as “confrontational.” Instead, we could have two strangers from opposite sides of the track building a new and honest relationship with nary a slur slipping out. Sometimes you want that, and that’d be nice. But sometimes, you want to see a racist guy kicked through a wall.
“You think because you speak American you can talk shit to me?”
“Well, you have to admit it helps.”
“This uppity chink needs to learn his place. You think you can take me on?”
“That’s the wrong question.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s the right one?”
“The right question is… do you really want to find out?”
This is the very first scene of Warrior, a Cinemax show that debuted in 2019. Our hero Ah Sahm arrives in San Francisco in 1878, a period between the original import of Chinese labor for railroad construction and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. While this is a real-world historical setting, the show is decidedly — and confidently — an escapist fantasy. A brutal Irish union leader raids a factory after cheap Chinese labor put his guys out of work, and Ah Sahm shows up to intervene. If a kung fu battle in a factory sounds familiar, it should. Everything clicks the moment Ah Sahm dodges his first punch with a smirk: oh, shit, this is a Bruce Lee movie.
Rather, this is the Bruce Lee TV show: The Warrior, which he’d developed and pitched to Warner Brothers in the early ‘70s, before it was either transformed into or simply replaced by Kung Fu, infamously starring David Carradine made up to look Asian. 2019’s Warrior, executive-produced by Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee, is the genuine article. Justin Lin (Fast and Furious), a man who never has to work again, joins showrunner Jonathan Tropper in a creative capacity in large part because it’s a passion project. And who wouldn’t? In an interview, Tropper notes how his past self would never have believed his name would follow Bruce Lee’s in the credits. Similarly, the excitement of the mostly-Asian cast is palpable. Some of these talents have never had such a spotlight, or a role so meaty. Jason Tobin (Better Luck Tomorrow) in that tong suit is about as perfect an image television has yet produced, and how many Old West kung fu shows have existed for him to so occupy?
Ironically, this character existed on paper for 50 years, and now we finally get to see the entire vision realized, this lost project by a legend. It’s a fascinating backstory, and it touches my inner kung fu fan that the delay meant Joe Taslim could star in it (he gets the all-important “and” credit). And as an adaptation of older material, it makes for an interesting writing exercise. The familiar beats of a Bruce Lee movie (fight in the factory, tournament) arrive as payoffs, with the dramatic weight of prestige television. Unlike certain movie-to-show adaptations where a limited premise is stretched thin, these payoffs are properly set up with development across a healthy balance of perspectives in and around Chinatown — hatchetmen, kingpins, politicians, police — none of which are isolated nor individually too complex. “Lot of names” is a frequent issue with myself and gangster movies — one issue among many. Warrior’s delay also means it’s shaped by modern sensibilities, which I dearly appreciate. I like the odd gangster movie here and there, but the genre is usually preoccupied by sexual violence and a general assumption of women’s character and place. I didn’t go into Warrior requiring that the women be badass, but they are, and that doesn’t hurt.
To be clear, Warrior is far from revision or genre deconstruction — unlike, say, Evangelion, the relationship between creator and subject matter isn’t a complicated love/hate. This is a loving tribute to the world of Bruce Lee, with character names like “Bolo” and “O’Hara.” We might call it fan service, but I don’t mind it. One of the saloons is named “Banshee,” either coincidentally or more likely for Jonathan Tropper’s previous show, Banshee. This is a reference on the cleverness level of briefly featuring the Hitman video game in the Hitman movie, but I find it endearing. It’s unpretentious, just as the show’s mix of genres isn’t winkingly obsessed with conventions and aesthetics, nor overturning them. The love is pure, and you can see it in their eyes — check out the cast and crew featurettes included as a bumper on each episode on HBO Max. I watched every single one, and was especially taken by Dianne Doan, whose Canadian radiance was a surprise coming off her brooding kingpin Mai Ling. She loses about ten years shedding the period look and countenance — disappears into the role — and it’s kismet that Mai Ling is at one point told that outside of Chinatown, she’d be just another Chinese woman: inconsequential. In the Chinatown of Warrior, she’s a ruthless queen, and as the actress portraying her, Doan isn’t the Asian sidekick or the purple-haired hacker.
Asian actors in front of the camera occupying non-stereotypical roles is only one prong in the show’s approach to racism. In a rare move, the cast is matched by Chinese-American filmmakers behind the camera. To the substance of the show itself, the characters live dangerous lives which require the manufacture of identities, and often explosively, their work reveals the hidden depths — concealed talents. Ah Toy might be the madam of a brothel, but that makes her an unlikely suspect in serial murders committed by a master swordsman. By the same token, an upstanding aide to the mayor is actually a Machiavellian bastard, but even his rabid power taps a limited source. Everyone in this world is more than they appear, and each is subject to preconceptions as racial minorities, as women, as members of a social class. How they respond to these preconceptions is the fantasy at the heart of the show. Ah Sahm ticks away like a time bomb while a racist couple speaks openly about him, assuming he doesn’t understand and wouldn’t have the means to do anything about it anyway. “What you didn’t know was I’m a badass” is an action movie standby, but it takes on new meaning here. Racism becomes a perverse source of excitement, because justice is always right around the corner.
Beyond the fantasy is the text, the plot which follows a gangster story outline and puts power at its thematic center. Alliances, betrayals, manipulation — as the many factions vie for control and territory, we come to implicitly understand how racism and the institutions of a city are inextricable, and it all makes for a system where the police are political, where a tiered society is architecturally apparent, where laborers waste away in anonymous ubiquity, a constant reminder of one’s tenuous footing among all of it. This is a show whose creators understand the joys of archetypal prestige television, that characters have secrets and certain others may know those secrets. In any given room, we understand each relationship, and some of them simmer with tension — the promises of sex and violence nearly equally likely (Cinemax, HBO, etc.).
And now for the bad news: Warrior was canceled. Sort of. Cinemax declined to order a third season because it ceased original programming altogether in 2020, and the show migrated to HBO Max. The producers are hoping to continue the story, as truly no TV show is complete in two seasons, except Fleabag, but that was complete with one and we were lucky to have two. I’m hopeful Warrior finds a new home. I’d be glad, I guess. Surely. I mean, look: I’ve been here before. We all have, right? I’ve been annoying about a TV show, nudging at people to please watch and improve the dismal ratings, and I don’t love being in that mode. We’re living in an era of peak fan entitlement, and what nonexistent influence I have on Hollywood hardly diminishes the douchiness of a demand. Moreover, this isn’t my fight. The tong wars are not my history — I’m Korean, not Chinese. A younger me wouldn’t have made the distinction, but it’s important. I shouldn’t be seeing myself in these characters, and I don’t need to. It was so heartening to see the joy and passion in the eyes of Doan and Shannon Lee and of course my main man Joe Taslim. It matters to them, and I can’t imagine how much it matters to Chinese-Americans watching. Well, I can imagine, and will.
I’m hoping Warrior continues, but I understand the framing of my argument for it is insensitive, that a TV show is the solution to real-world violence. I’d started writing this post moments before the recent headlines of COVID-related anti-Asian racism, and the mass shooting which came as consequence of entitlement to Asian women’s bodies. The impetus then was simpler: this is a good show and please bring it back. Current events haven’t changed that part, but I’d look foolish if I didn’t acknowledge that Warrior is a model for the kind of media narratives and depictions that counterprogram stereotypes. Whether or not it has social value beyond that, I can’t say, and doing so would also be levying a harsher criticism on studios not picking it up for a third season. Fingers crossed, anyway. Sometimes calls for representation are too abstract, or don’t match industry realities. In this case, we already have a proven success story. I mean, it got canceled, but if I’m being honest? It has helped me look in the mirror.