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Review: Kung Fu Reboot kicks holes into storyline

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By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Writer

At the end of the pilot of the 2021 Kung Fu reboot, I wondered two things: Do Shaolin monks have cellphones and do Buddhist nuns wear makeup. Getting through the episode required discipline and more goodwill than I have at the end of the day.

This iteration of Kung Fu thankfully centers on a Chinese American family played by people who are actually East Asian Americans, yet the action could be tighter and the next episodes need to flimflam us enough with flash, flair and finesse so we forgive the plot holes and the fluctuating tone.

Kung Fu Past

Depending upon whom you want to believe, this series was either inspired by a stolen story pitch from the legendary Bruce Lee, or based on Ed Spielman’s original story and teleplay for the action martial arts Western drama television series that starred David Carradine as the half-White, half-Chinese Kwai Chang Caine.

The Warner Bros.-produced original series ran for only three seasons on ABC (1972-1975) and was followed by the 1986 Kung Fu: The Movie where Caine fights his son (Brandon Lee), the 1987 Kung Fu: The Next Generation” where the great-grandson of Kwai Chang Caine (Brandon Lee) destroys an arms dealing operation in the present-day and then a Canadian American crime drama series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues where the Shaolin monk father (Carradine) and his police detective son (Chris Potter) fight crime in modern times (four seasons, 1993-1997).

The original Kung Fu series had a mournful, contemplative tone. The orphaned Caine is searching for his half-brother, Daniel. Caine is humble and soft-spoken.

Kung Fu 2021

While Caine was allowed into the Shaolin temple as a boy and left when he was an adult, the new protagonist, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang) spends three years training under the sifu Teen Pei-Ling after fleeing from a potential Chinese husband meet-and-greet. After dropping out of college and breaking up with her boyfriend, Nicky thought she was going on a cultural heritage trip to China. What her visa and the communist government have to say about things is overlooked.

When the temple is attacked and her sifu is murdered by an acquaintance Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman) who came to steal a legendary sword, Nicky is forced to return home to San Francisco, totally unannounced. Yet Nicky is haunted by Pei-Ling who tells Nicky to retrieve the sword.

Arriving home, she finds her sister Althea (Shannon Dang) is engaged to Dennis Soong (Tony Chung), her brother Ryan (Jon Prasida) hurt by her three-year silence and her mother Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) bitter. “My daughter died three years ago.”

Nicky quickly patches things up with her brother who introduces her to Henry (Eddie Liu), a guy who likes martial arts and is interested in Chinese history. Through Henry, Nicky learns more about the sword.

Nicky also learns that her family’s restaurant is in debt. Her mother borrowed money from a slick customer, but the borrowed $50K turned into $100K with interest. Her father has been beaten up, ending up in the hospital and the family has 72 hours to pay off the debt.

Kung fu stars Olivia Liang. CW Photo

Looking up her old boyfriend, Evan Hartley (Gavin Stenhouse), she gets some help with the triad who are squeezing her family. Her ex fails to mention he has acquired a new girlfriend, Sabine (Rebecca Olson), until she shows up. Her family canvases Chinatown to find out who else is being coerced by this triad because the police are either on the triad payroll or don’t speak Chinese. The other shop owners are too afraid to speak up until one sees Nicky and Henry take on the thugs.

With community support, Nicky, Evan, Ryan and Althea return to the Shen home and look for more evidence. Hacking into the customer’s bank account, Althea learns that something is happening at the docks. Ryan takes off on his own to get some photographic evidence. Tony spots Ryan, but Nicky arrives and fights Tony off although he has a gun. There’s a suggestion that Nicky has supernatural abilities.

At the end of the episode, Henry reveals that there’s a legend about eight special swords. The person who collects them all will be invincible. In the wrong hands, and Zhilan is most definitely in that category, this would lead to a worldwide disaster.

It’s hard to judge a series on one episode. Usually, you want to see how the series feels by the third episode. Much of the exposition is clunky, but once set how will the series roll? Too much here is awkward and even unrealistic. Are we to believe that the current Chinese government would just let an angsty American stay for three years? Where did she get the money to fly home? If there are magic swords, where else is there magic or the supernatural powers? And did Nicky really have no guidance counselor in high school or college that asked her about her own choices?

The other problem the real question of the Kung Fu series is not whether a female lead would work because Disney has already given us two version of Mulan. The real question is can someone take the role that might have been played by Bruce Lee and will the studios and TV audiences accept it. The Cinemax series, Warrior, was a start, but while it has a more even tone, it has also mature content and a tendency to hypersexualize women.

I don’t know if nuns wear makeup, but there are kung fu nuns and they do train other women. Monasteries and nunneries are also not cut off entirely from the technology of the world: A UPI article indicates that monks have cellphones. If you know this, you can’t help but hear every jingle for every cellphone commercial as you watch this pilot episode. The fight work isn’t particularly exciting, but there’s no slo-mo, something that characterized the original series. This episode also reminded us that in a country and an era where automatic weapons are easily acquired and mass shooting happen too often, does Kung Fu make any sense? Or does it amount to bringing something less than a knife to a gun fight.

Kung Fu premiered on April 7 and is on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Just to chime in on your first paragraph, yes, Shaolin monks does have cell phones I have met a few that does, and yes, they do wear make up as we are in 2021. And yes, all the above are happening now in the digital world now, and also, it’s all watered down now because of it’s current Chinese huge interest in promoting Shaolin system in China.

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