Where is she looking
if he’s looking down?
The CW’s Kung Fu
It’s just how things are these days, that the credits on the Kung Fu revival fade in and make a promise soon to be unfulfilled: “Based on Kung Fu by Ed Spielman.” This new show has nothing to do with the earlier one, which was a western, and the current narrative in television is that Kung Fu has been reclaimed by the Bruce Lee estate, by way of Cinemax’s Warrior. Why go back and reclaim again, in that way we ordinarily do, by only populating a problem canvas with better faces? The whole thing needed restructuring, from the draft phase, and it was already done. It was done. So I guess, well, now time for the next one! Hell, bring on The CW’s Kung Fu, because I don’t need to hear the argument that The Hunger Games is a ripoff of Battle Royale. If The Hunger Games can offer anything new, anything extra or different or special, why argue it shouldn’t exist just to boost your cult film creds? (Battle Royale does not count as “cult”). I’m perfectly willing, even possibly excited, to see the Y.A. version of “martial arts woman,” because I want to see all versions. I want to see a martial arts woman in everything I ever watch — provided she’s treated with respect. Or rather, demands respect — takes it, by the throat.
So far, we have the pilot of Kung Fu, and thus I braced myself — the awkwardness of construction, the telltale sound mixing of ADR (only one instance, actually), the stiff performances of actors inhabiting roles for the first time on a rapid schedule. Pilots are broken things and a cruel, bizarre industry norm that — when successful — only serve to force an unneeded gap in visual texture and continuity between episode one and the rest of the series. Take a look at an earlier CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, whose series made use of a set meant to replicate a baseball-themed sports bar in West Covina, California, and whose pilot shot in the actual sports bar.
Episode 1, on location
Episode 3, on set
It isn’t a big deal, but it just seems needless. Pilots are also subject to the most studio scrutiny of any episode, as we might learn from the example of FX’s Tyrant (I remember seeing reports about it being dramatically reedited, but two pages into a google search for corroboration is already too much research). So, take that example.
For Kung Fu, there’s a strange, almost slapdash quality to its most visible production aspects. When I close my eyes and recall its imagery, I’m only seeing the protagonist swiftly walking through each setting, never stopping, never letting the spaces she inhabits become spaces. In fact, you look at these environments, and there’s relatively little visual data. Set dressing appears set, the windows are stark white or too-blurry.
Where are we?
What is this place and who are these people?
They come in and out of doorways and halls and exchange dialogue and then the protagonist is moving again. Her name is Nicky — I had to look it up afterward. Overall, the show suffers a murky appearance, and a lot of that comes from the unspecific camera — always floating and whirling without deciding on points of interest — and the lighting. Here’s an example: a mostly sufficiently-lit image but one without shapes. What’s this red light? Where does it come from? Not the white window.
And “mostly sufficient” because there’s no light in his eyes, and no narrative reason for this moment of clarity to be dark. They’re seeing each other for the first time in three years.
I may be overly sensitive to this, because it’s not every day you see an Asian-American story, and you want that to be the product of passionate, deliberate consideration, that people aren’t just checking off a box. Likely, these problems will adjust as the series goes on, and you never know how comfortable a show will feel even after a bad first episode (from Kill la Kill to the Magnum PI reboot — takes all kinds). And for the record? The lighting in Warrior is horrendous. At least two fight scenes in the first season are almost fatally underlit. When it comes time to reflect on Warrior however, it’s an issue so negligible its mere mention overstates the impact. I noticed the production foibles in Kung Fu in part because it’s a pilot, but the “pilot handicap” never kicked in because there was simply nothing else to concentrate on. Nicky is tearing through these plot points with the ferocity of a mission — perhaps in this case to hit every checkbox in the “Chinese-American Experience,” like immigrant story, tiger mom, mathletes, literal Shaolin Temple, mysticism, ancient history, triads, Chinatown, scrolls (nothing about food, though, which is odd).
Again, nothing is given space, everything is plain. Honestly, though, I can file this away as part of the expectations. This is the kind of story this is, and that’s fine. It’s not a Chinese history lesson, and, hey, the burning temple and killed master gestures at genre tradition. I’ll stomach the teen romance or whatever else you need to do so long as you do the one thing. This is about a martial arts woman, period. If she’s on-screen doing pretty much anything, that’s the game. In fact, I’ve just now hit upon the beauty of the action heroine, characterized properly — she’s always cool, even in repose. Is she leaning against the bar, giving off the scary vibes? Almost as good as the punching.
In practice, however, I’ve often found the action heroine is too moral to ever implicitly threaten people, so they might lack the anarchic spark that makes action heroes crackle. Nicky’s equivalent in Warrior, Ah Sahm, is one of these guys who exudes menace, and that’s part of the text of the show. Racist outsiders or Chinese gangsters are always approaching without caution, because they simply don’t know what he can do. It’s exciting to live in that space between the approach and the moment he shows them. So far, Kung Fu is sapped of this elemental joy, skewering my theory about being able to accept the action heroine in any context, at any age rating. I don’t need her to kick people and then they die — the show’s action has been satisfying anyway — but if you cut the action scenes out, you’d never guess this is a show about a master martial artist. When she’s running around asking her fellow Chinese-Americans about the gangsters, because they speak the same insular cultural language, or sitting around with the family or sad-flirting in the soon-to-be love triangle, she’s a “regular girl” perhaps in an irregular situation. I’m sitting there doing that thing I always have to do where I think, “She seems cool. What if she could kick ass?” not realizing that she can.
Along with the pilot business, there’s another narrative I’m navigating in sorting my thoughts into a sort-of review here. Turns out, the actress, Olivia Liang, is familiar to me as the character Alyssa Chang on The CW’s Legacies (I watch it for my job — vampires are not cool, ever). Alyssa is a difficult character, one I have to view through finger-slits. She’s the object of scorn — of the characters’, the viewers’ — because she is so scornful herself, being the mean girl, and that makes the various violence against her justified and welcome. It’s horrible. Her move to Kung Fu is not lateral, but the complication is that I imagine she enjoyed playing Alyssa, and that everyone else liked playing around her. It’s fun being the villain. A project like Kung Fu in 2021, accidentally timed but landing nonetheless on the tail of a national Asian-American conversation (but decidedly in the wake of 2020’s police brutality), maybe necessarily feels animated by political concerns. Plot points are talking points, but they’re sanitized or too brief. You can’t get an Asian lead wrong if she bears no characteristics, but of course you can. If she’s as much of a swaggering asshole as Ah Sahm, we might not accept her, but how will she grow into a responsible defender as Ah Sahm does? That’s how she starts.
Now hold your horses, because this is probably a trap. You might sense the complaint bubbling in me that the show, by not taking time to set up its dramatic stakes, starts too close to the end. Mercifully, there are no flashbacks here, and a surprisingly coherent, linear plot (again, for a pilot). This is what I’m always asking for, I guess.
Long ago, I said “What I’m missing from Hollywood film is a tradition of forgettable woman-led action cinema.” We can’t just make Death Wish every time, Peppermint, we also need The Mechanic and Mr. Majestyk. Around the same time, it seemed this unfortunate seed of mine was bursting with seed-insides. L.A.’s Finest, The Equalizer, and now Kung Fu — each of these however being television shows. Oh, but be careful what you wish for! Disregarding that they’re all “female reimaginings” of existing non-female properties, the first two at least have been pretty bad. And know what? It’s production issues again. In the episodes of either I’ve seen, the editing appears more “recovery” than “rhythm,” like working around takes or splicing together something that never existed (we’re all now experts on film editing thanks to Zach Snyder). Season two of L.A.’s Finest opens with an episode wherein the key talent are off-camera while speaking more often than not, and most of the dialogue is ADR. Gabrielle friggin’ Union, people! Hello?! It’s my fear that somebody at the top doesn’t believe these projects need to be properly made, but their being made fulfills a quota of some kind.
I read an interesting piece on the movie Promising Young Woman yesterday by Ayesha A. Siddiqi which did as advertised and discouraged my yearlong interest in seeing it. It sounds exactly like those movies I watch where I think it’s gonna be cool and then nothing ever happens (Ready or Not) but then people are like “it’s a revenge thriller” and I’m like “What the fuck did you watch??” Regardless, the cultural narrative Siddiqi describes is one in which this “edgy” movie is sent and received by a world desperately thankful it exists. “Promising Young Woman has been positioned to sweep awards season, revealing how eager Hollywood is to reclaim its image after the scandal of Harvey Weinstein.” I’d asked for a stable of par action heroines to build a foundation for later, more interesting action heroines, but I didn’t anticipate that the answer to that ask also fulfills the quota. Having an Asian woman on a poster is a really good look right now, and not everybody’s got that. And she’s in an empowerment stance. A pilot is little indication of anything, so take it with a grain of salt when I say, “the pilot of Kung Fu doesn’t indicate there’s much more going on.”
Also, is she gonna be, like, a weird police go-between? Please — for so many reasons, but… let a badass be a badass on her own.