How Modern Martial Arts Movies and TV Shows Use Storylines to Discuss Social Justice
In the second season of “Warrior,” on HBO Max, set in the 19th century, an angry Irish mob descends on San Francisco’s Chinatown, violently beating the locals.
The episode depicts something that has happened frequently in the history of the United States: the destruction of Chinatown and the lynching of the Chinese people. “Warrior” was filmed and aired ahead of the recent Stop Asian Hate conversation, but executive producer Shannon Lee was troubled to see the series gain even more relevance in 2021.
“It tells this important story about the history of our country, the history of China’s exclusion law and things that we don’t know anything about,” Lee told NBC Asian America. “Unfortunately, it really reflects some of the feelings that are happening in our country right now around Asians – and the way Asians are attacked, characterized, spoken – and helps to break down those stereotypes and show ourselves in a different light.”
But “Warrior” is not entirely dark. The show follows a Chinese man named Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who is also a kung fu master, as he navigates America as a new immigrant. And he is mobilizing to defend Chinatown against the crowd. The show, which was recently renewed for a third season, balances kung fu fighting with character building and social commentary.
“Warrior” is one of many recent Asian American TV shows and films that take a fresh look at kung fu and use the genre to explore American culture, politics and identity. Lee says that “Warrior”, with its predominantly Asian cast, is a way to “reclaim the genre,” with “incredible actors telling their story, their American-Asian story.”
Another show that has caused quite a stir recently is “Kung Fu,” which is on the CW and features a mostly Asian cast. It follows Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), a Chinese-American who studies kung fu in China. She returns to San Francisco after the murder of her sifu, or kung fu teacher (Vanessa Kai).
But it’s not just a tale of revenge, which is typical of the genre. Showrunner Christina M. Kim describes the show as “a family drama with a little kung fu in it.”
“Kung Fu” ‘also takes place in modern times and a recent episode has focused on Black Lives Matter. He addressed police brutality and the need for solidarity between the Asian and black community. Kim is aware of the popular perception that the Asian and Black communities are at odds, and she wanted to show something different in “Kung Fu”.
“It was really important for us to talk about racism in general, within the black community, within the Asian community, within both communities together,” Kim said. “It was really two communities coming together that you don’t normally see on TV. It was an opportunity to show something different and hopefully inspire too.
“Kung Fu” has been renewed for a second season on The CW.
Director Bao Tran studied kung fu as a child, with the same teachers as Bruce Lee, the martial arts movie star who died in 1973 at the age of 32. Tran’s kung fu film “The Paper Tigers” follows three friends who studied martial arts together as children. In middle age, they rediscover their friendship and love of the practice – while investigating the suspicious death of their sifu.
Tran grew up watching kung fu movies from China and Hong Kong. He said these films tend to lean toward fantasy and crime-fighting, while American-Asian kung fu narratives use the genre to explore contemporary issues of identity. In “The Paper Tigers”, the main character Danny (Alain Uy) struggles to balance his regular life as a divorced father with his quest to avenge the death of his sifu.
For Tran, the kung fu in the film is a substitute for Asian heritage and how to integrate it into American society. “As Asian Americans, we have these two kinds of loyalties that we’re torn between: ordinary suburban life and this Confucian moral code,” Tran said. “Ultimately, Danny has to figure out how to integrate the two.”
These thematic intentions are not always immediately clear to an audience. This is because the Asian American audience carries a certain baggage around the kung fu stereotype. Tran talks about being teased and bullied when he was younger, with kids yelling at him like Bruce Lee and asking if he knew martial arts. This stereotype followed him even when he was trying to make “The Paper Tigers”.
“Most of the depictions of Asian men have been, you know, in martial arts,” Tran said. “So when we tried to fundraise and find support from other people who were of Asian descent, they kind of criticized us. They were like, ‘Well, why are you doing another martial arts movie? You are pushing back our people. It’s so tired.
Tran eventually made his movie and it hit theaters in May (and subsequently received a 100% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes).
Lee, who is Bruce Lee’s daughter, is aware of the complicated feelings Asian Americans have towards her father. “It makes me a little sad when I hear people say, ‘Bruce Lee is a stereotype’,” she said.
But Bruce Lee faced his own battles to be overlooked as an Asian man. “Warrior” was based on a television treatment he wrote in the 1970s about a kung fu master crossing the US border. Lee couldn’t do his show because, he once said, the studios didn’t think an Asian star would appeal to audiences.
Over the years, Lee has become so flattened in popular culture that people forget he was a full human being, said Shannon Lee.
“He was absolutely passionate about martial arts,” she said. “Underneath, if people were willing to dig a little deeper, was his incredible philosophy about being a human being, speaking out and understanding who you are. I made it my mission to make people know this because I don’t want it to be just, like, kung fu and dragons.
According to Lee, the origin of the kung fu master stereotype is rooted in the fact that his father made such a big splash in Hollywood, but after that, “there wasn’t enough of this ongoing impact from others. [Asian Americans]. And not because of their fault, but just because of the systems in place. So he became this anomaly.
Because Hollywood tends to reproduce things that sold long before, playing a kung fu fighter quickly became one of the only ways for Asian actors to find work in Hollywood. For these new works, the important thing for the creators was to present a variety of three-dimensional Asian characters, who are not familiar with all martial arts.
Kim said, “On other shows I’ve written about, I’d be lucky to have an Asian character. You feel the pressure like, ‘Oh, my God, that person can’t reinforce a stereotype. Or, “Can I make this person a criminal? I don’t want to perpetuate this. I want to write the best story, and [in ‘Kung Fu’] we can. We have a multitude of characters and they’re all really different, with different character backgrounds. “
“Kung Fu” is a reboot of the 1972 “Kung Fu” TV show that starred David Carradine, a white, half-Chinese actor. So it’s a complicated property for Asian Americans, especially because, according to Bruce Lee’s family, “Kung Fu” the show was based on Bruce Lee’s “The Warrior,” but it was never. credited.
In updating the show, Kim went back to basics and wrote “the hero I wish I had seen grow up.”
Just by making her main character and her women sifu, Kim knew she was bringing something new to the table, in a genre dominated by men. “I wanted to return that,” Kim said. “It was an incredible opportunity to have someone who is a woman in a position of power, who is strong, who is intelligent, but also vulnerable and very accessible.”
What also prevents these new martial arts-based works from falling into stereotypes is who is behind the camera. In America, many works in the genre of martial arts have been performed by non-Asians. Bruce Lee was not able to have complete creative control over his work until he was making films in Hong Kong. These new properties are run by Asian American designers, who control their vision. The upcoming Marvel movie, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” stars Simu Liu as a martial arts superhero and is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who is half-Japanese.
Tran sees this present moment as a showcase of the different influences that Asian American artists can have. “My upbringing was Hong Kong movies and TV shows, but also Hollywood movies and outings. So my cinematic diet was wide and distant, and I never felt like one was better than the other, ”he said.
For Tran, this generation of creators, artists with one foot in multiple cultures, can tap into different artistic sources and combine them into something new, something uniquely American of Asian descent.
“We feel very free to choose from all of these things and not feel this conflict,” Tran said. “It’s the authentic voice and perspective of what an Asian American movie is, and our take on kung fu. It comes from that place of freedom.