Review: Kung Fu 2021 By Christina M. Kim
Some television shows arrive just when they are needed, and the CW’s reboot of Kung Fu is one of them. The new series reimagines the 70s and 90s David Carradine-starring TV shows in a way that keeps the action and adventure elements but centers the story on an Asian protagonist. It’s a great new series that I really enjoyed, not just for the excellent action, but for the way it puts a loving and vibrant Asian family at the heart of the story.
Speaking to journalists in March, series star Olivia Liang agreed. “I think the timing of our show is really impeccable,” Liang said. “So much about representation and inclusion is not so much that we, as Asians, need to see ourselves represented on the screens, but we need to be invited into people’s homes who don’t see us in their everyday life.” As anti-Asian violence and hate continue to swell in America, a series that stars an Asian American actress and focuses on Asian stories, the way Kung Fu does, feels essential and important.
But representation is only part of what makes a series good—there has to be a compelling story and a great cast, and Kung Fu has both in abundance. In Kung Fu, Liang plays Nicky Shen, the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents living in San Francisco. Circumstances conspire so that she ends up joining a remote monastery in China for three years, where she trains in kung fu under her mentor, Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai).
When Pei-Ling is killed (not a spoiler, as it happens very early in the series and has been discussed a lot and is also the kind of plot point you can see coming from a mile away) by another kung fu practitioner, Nicky vows to find Pei-Ling’s killer. Along the way, she learns that the assassin Zahlin (Yvonne Chapman) was after more than just Pei-Ling herself.
Showrunners Christina Kim (Blindspot) and Robert Berens (Supernatural) know that all the incredible action in the world won’t resonate as much without great characters and relationships, and that’s where I think this series really shines. Kim knows the community she’s writing about and it shows in every moment Nicky and her family are on screen. Nicky heads home to San Francisco and has to confront the fact that she essentially cut off her family for three years, and everyone has to work to repair their relationship. The Shen family is the heart of the show, and I really love every member and the actors playing them.
There are Nicky’s parents Jin and Mei-Li, played by Tzi Ma and Kheng Hua Tan, who bring so much depth and love to the characters. Jin is warm and loving and Mei-Li is the unquestionable backbone of the family. Their actors were also the only ones who had watched the original Kung Fu series in the 70s and spoke about how it was actually incredibly important to them in their youth to see Asian actors on American TV, though the show had a white lead. For Tan, the original was special to her and her family.
This Kung Fu is for a new generation. It’s still about standing up for what’s right and fighting for those who can’t defend themselves, but instead of focusing on a white man, it’s about an Asian woman and her family. That change is essential. Along with Nicky, in the younger generation are her tech-savvy sister Althea (Shannon Dang), Althea’s fiancé Dennis (Tony Chung), and Nicky’s pre-med brother Ryan (Jon Prasida). I don’t want to spoil anything, but Ryan is maybe the character in the series I’m most excited to get to know more, not just for his snark but because he has a plotline that I’m really interested to see develop over the series. It’s not an easy story to tell but I trust Kim and Berens with it. Chung and Dang are also great (and gorgeous) as Althea and Dennis.
But there are more complicated relationships at play here too, including what looks like the beginnings of a love triangle between Nicky’s ex-boyfriend Evan (Gavin Stenhouse), who is a DA whose help Nicky seeks out to solve Pei-Ling’s murder, and her new love interest Henry (Eddie Liu). Liu also spoke about his experience with the Kung Fu franchise as a kid and how confusing it was that a show called Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (the 90s-era sequel series to Kung Fu) starred a white man:
Back in the nineties, I didn’t have the wherewithal as a child to process the fact that the lead was not in fact, quite Asian, and his son was Caucasian. And … it took me a long time to kind of grow up and mature from that, kind of step back and realize, wait, that’s weird, right guys? … Mom, dad, like what’s going on here? And I, you know, and at the time we took it … I feel like this echoes our existence as Asian Americans here in the West. It’s kind of like, well, you take what you can get and just be grateful you got it. But, we’re past that. We’re past that.
We are. This is the right time for a series with a majority Asian cast who are never relegated to side plots or stereotypes. They are front and center as complex and compelling characters. I am really excited for everyone to fall in love with Liang and Liu in particular, not only because I think Liu is going to be many folks’ new internet crush, but because Henry is charming and fun, Nicky is strong and interestingly flawed, and both sparkle in the fight scenes.
And there are a lot of fight scenes, given the fact that Nicky’s dad gets on the wrong side of some powerful criminals and Nicky has to fight them to protect her family. Liang is incredible in the action scenes, especially considering that she had no martial arts training before the series (though she did dance and cited that as very helpful). Kai and Liu are awesome as well, but it’s Liang who carries the show in terms of action and drama and she does a great job.
Kung Fu is both a really fun action show and also a family drama with a lot of heart about a kind of family we haven’t seen nearly enough of in television dramas. This must change, and Kung Fu is a great example of the way forward. The cast is beautiful and brilliant and the story is intriguing, and I’m really excited to see where it all goes.