Years after the debut of “Arrow” and “The Flash,” The CW Network recently released its newest action series “Kung Fu.” The premiere drew in the highest viewership at the network in over two years, proving that, though times may have changed, the public never seems to get tired of watching action-packed stories of heroes rising up against injustice.
Not quite super, but a hero all the same, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang, “Legacies”) is an Asian-American daughter of immigrant parents who has lived her life under the pressure of their expectations and lofty plans. Sent to China under the guise of a cultural tour, Nicky discovers she’s actually been sent for matchmaking and decides she has had enough of living life on her family’s terms. Instead, she runs away and joins a Shaolin Monastery where female warriors are trained in the martial arts. The experience immediately draws Nicky in, and she is filled with a sense of purpose she was previously lacking. She is repeatedly reminded by her mentor, however, that her training is not about hiding from her problems but rather preparing her to face them. As her mentor says, “You make the path that you live.”
If the pilot is any indication, the series has a nuanced take on the battle between tradition and carving one’s own path, and we can see parallels of this conflict in Nicky’s story. She confronts the constricting expectations of her parents and their traditional ideals of success with the teachings of the Shaolin Monastery, which promote personal autonomy.
Nicky also must solve the mysteries of the modern crime organizations that stole her mentor’s sword by further looking into the past and doing historical research. Ultimately, she finds help within the Asian-American community in San Francisco, Calif., both from people at the Chinese Community Center and with locals that grew up alongside her.
It is compelling to watch how the show avoids vilifying tradition in lieu of modernity and instead offers a repurposed sense of tradition as the driving force behind Nicky’s sense of identity. Nicky doesn’t reject her family and her culture because of how they hurt her but rather leans into and eventually draws strength from them.
The reconciliation between Nicky and her family sends a powerful message because the series just as easily could have seen the protagonist never reconcile with her family and take on the bad guys herself with a newfound skill set and sense of purpose. However, this would’ve been far more hollow than what we get: Nicky working with her family to unpack the generational trauma that kept them apart and stand up for themselves, together. But what does standing up for herself entail for Nicky? Simply put, a whole lot of ass-kicking.
Nicky’s three years of training with the women warriors serve her well when she faces gang members back in her hometown and the audience gets to see her combat in action. The fight scenes range from realistic moments to comic book-like flips and kicks but remain entertaining throughout. It’s particularly gratifying to watch her absolutely wreck goons that come after her family members, and her fighting style earns the respect of members of her community who faced the same abuse and intimidation. By the end of the pilot, Nicky is able to use her skills to begin to unify her community against the corruption and violence of the local gang.
Ultimately, this series presents an exciting opportunity for a story we haven’t seen before in mainstream superhero narratives — a story that showcases the diverse personalities within the Asian-American community as well as the strength of one such community united within an action-packed adventure. Asian Americans have long been calling for more diversity within the television and film industry, and many individuals, like actress Awkwafina, have pointed out that when roles are available, they are often stereotypes or roles that service a broader white storyline.
Indeed, the original 1972 “Kung Fu” series features a white protagonist using the martial arts skills he learned from supporting Asian characters to travel through the American Old West. Today’s “Kung Fu” seems to turn this trend on its head, presenting the story of a badass protagonist’s journey with a lens that is genuine rather than tokenizing. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the new series is written and produced by Christina Kim, who started her career as a story editor on “Lost” before working in producing roles for shows like “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Blindspot.” Kim’s ability to write nuanced characters is palpable in “Kung Fu,” where every character has meaningful motivations and background.
During an era where the former president referred to COVID-19 as the “kung flu” and recent spikes in crime against the Asian-American community, it’s paramount to see a series where Asian Americans are properly represented in media. Not simply as tokenized characters or minor pieces in a white narrative, but rather portrayed powerfully in standing up for their communities, kicking ass and taking names. “Kung Fu” was always going to be a great show, but it’s particularly important within the context of the world it’s been released in.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.