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How modern martial arts films, TV shows are using storylines to discuss social justice

“It’s telling this important story... about the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and things that are not learned about,” producer Shannon Lee said of the TV show “Warrior.”
Andrew Koji appears in "Warrior."
Andrew Koji, in "Warrior."David Bloomer / Cinemax

In the second season of “Warrior,” on HBO Max, which is set in the 19th century, a mob of angry Irishmen descend upon San Francisco’s Chinatown, violently beating residents.

The episode portrayed something that happened frequently in U.S. history: the destruction of Chinatowns and the lynching of Chinese people. “Warrior” was filmed and released before the recent conversation around Stop Asian Hate, but executive producer Shannon Lee was disturbed to find that the show was gaining an even greater relevance in 2021.

“It’s telling this important story about the history of our country, about the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and things that are not learned about,” Lee told NBC Asian America. “Unfortunately, it is really reflecting certain sentiments that are happening in our country right now around Asians — and the way Asians are being attacked, characterized, talked about — and helping to break up these stereotypes and show us in a different light.”

But “Warrior” is not all bleak. 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 steps up to defend Chinatown from the mob. The show, which was recently renewed for a third season, balances kung fu fights with character building and social commentary. 

“Warrior” is one of a number of recent TV shows and movies by Asian Americans that are taking a new look at kung fu, and using the genre to explore American culture, politics and identity. Lee says “Warrior,” with its mostly Asian cast, is a way to “reclaim the genre,” with “amazing actors who are telling their story, their Asian American story.”

Another show that has garnered buzz recently is “Kung Fu,” which is on the CW and features a mostly Asian cast. It follows Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), a Chinese American woman who studies kung fu in China. She returns to San Francisco after her sifu, or kung fu teacher (Vanessa Kai), is murdered.

Olivia Liang, as Nicky Shen in "Kung Fu."Kailey Schwerman / The CW

But it’s not just a vengeance narrative, which is typical of the genre. Showrunner Christina M. Kim describes the show as “a family drama with a bit of kung fu in it.” 

“Kung Fu”' is also set in the modern day, and a recent episode focused on Black Lives Matter. It 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 the Black communities are at odds with each other, and she wanted to show something different in “Kung Fu.”

“It was really important for us to talk about just racism in general, within the Black community, within the Asian community, within the two communities together,” Kim said. “It was really about two communities coming together, that you normally don't see on TV. It was an opportunity to show something that was different and hopefully inspiring as well.”

“Kung Fu” has been renewed for a second season on the CW. 

Director Bao Tran studied kung fu as a kid, under the same teachers as Bruce Lee, the martial arts film star who died in 1973, at 32. Tran's kung fu film “The Paper Tigers” follows three friends who studied martial arts together as kids. In middle age, they rediscover their friendship and their love of the practice — while investigating the suspicious death of their sifu.

Matthew Page and Mykel Shannon Jenkins in "The Paper Tigers"Well GO USA Entertainment

Tran grew up watching kung fu films from China and Hong Kong. He said that those films tend to lean toward fantasy and crime-fighting, while Asian American kung fu narratives are using the genre to explore contemporary issues of identity. In “The Paper Tigers,” the main character Danny (Alain Uy) struggles with balancing his regular life as a divorced dad with his quest to avenge the death of his sifu.

To Tran, kung fu in the film is a stand-in for Asian heritage, and how to incorporate that within American society. “As Asian Americans, we have these two kinds of loyalties that we’re pulled between: regular suburban life, and this Confucian moral code,” Tran said. “Ultimately, Danny needs to figure out how to integrate both.”

Those thematic intentions aren’t always immediately clear to an audience. That’s because Asian American audiences carry a certain amount of baggage around the kung fu stereotype. Tran talks about being teased and bullied when he was younger, with kids screaming at him like Bruce Lee and asking if he knew martial arts. That stereotype followed him even when he was trying to get “The Paper Tigers” made.

“Most portrayals of Asian men have been, you know, in martial arts,” said Tran. “So when we tried to fundraise and find support from other folks who were Asian American, they kind of gave us some flack. They were like, ‘Well, why are you making another martial arts film? You're setting our people back. This is so tired.’”

Tran did eventually make his film and it had a theatrical release in May (and subsequently received a 100 percent Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes).

Lee, who is the daughter of Bruce Lee, is aware of the complicated feelings that Asian Americans have toward her father. “It makes me a little bit sad when I hear people say, ‘Bruce Lee is a stereotype,’” she said.

But Bruce Lee faced his own battles with being overlooked as an Asian man. “Warrior” was based on a television treatment that he wrote in the ‘70s about a kung fu master traveling through the American frontier. Lee was unable to get his show made because, he once said, studios did not think an Asian lead would appeal to audiences.

Over the years, Lee has become so flattened in popular culture that people forget that he was a full human being, Shannon Lee said.

“He absolutely was fully passionate about martial arts,” she said. “Under that, if people were willing to dig a little deeper, was his amazing philosophy about being a human being and expressing oneself and understanding who you are. I've made it my mission to make sure that people know that because I don't want him to just be, like, kung fu and dragons.”

According to Lee, the origin of the kung fu master stereotype is rooted in her father making such a huge splash in Hollywood, but after that, “there was not enough of that continued impact from others [Asian Americans]. And not through any fault of their own, but just due to the systems in place. So he became this anomaly.”

Because Hollywood tends to replicate things that sold well before, playing a kung fu fighter soon became one of the only ways that Asian actors could get work in Hollywood. For these newer works, the important thing for the creators was showcasing a variety of three-dimensional Asian characters, who don’t all know martial arts.

Said Kim: “On other shows that I've written on, I’d be lucky to have one Asian character. You do feel the pressure of like, ‘Oh, gosh, this person cannot be reinforcing a stereotype.’ Or, ‘Can I have this person be a criminal? I don't want to perpetuate that.’ 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 journeys.”

“Kung Fu” is a reboot of the 1972 “Kung Fu” TV show that starred David Carradine, a white actor, as half Chinese. 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 he was never given credit.

In updating the show, Kim went back to basics and wrote “the hero that I wish I had seen growing up.”

Just by making her lead character and her sifu women, Kim knew she was bringing something new to the table, in a genre that is male-dominated. “I wanted to flip that,” Kim said. “This was an amazing opportunity to have someone who's a woman in a position of power, who's strong, who's smart, but also vulnerable and very relatable.”

What also keeps these new martial arts-based works from falling into stereotypes is who is behind the camera. In America, many of the works in the martial arts genre have been made by non-Asians. Bruce Lee wasn’t able to get complete creative control over his work until he made films in Hong Kong. These newer properties are headed by Asian American creators, who have control over their vision. The upcoming Marvel film, “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 showcasing the different influences that Asian American artists can have. “My upbringing was Hong Kong movies and TV shows, but also going out and seeing Hollywood movies. So my movie diet was wide and far, and I never felt like one was better than the other,” he said.

To Tran, this generation of creators, artists with a foot in multiple cultures, can pull from different artistic sources and combine them into something new, something specifically Asian American. 

“We feel very free in picking and choosing from all these things and not feel that conflict," Tran said. "That’s the genuine voice and perspective of what an Asian American film is, and our perspective on kung fu. It's coming from that place of freedom.”