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'Kung Fu' 1.01 Review: More Than Just Kung Fu Fighting

Come for the fight, stay for the family.

Tzi Ma as Jin Shen, Shannon Dang as Althea Shen and Kheng Hau Tan as Mei - Li in "Kung Fu," a CW reboot of the classic TV series.
(Image: © The CW)

Our Verdict

Despite the story surrounding ancient Chinese myths, Kung Fu packs a punch with their fight choreography and likeable characters and their relationships.

For

  • 💥The fight choreography is pretty solid.
  • 💥The characters, especially Liang, are really likeable.
  • 💥The family dynamics were extremely relatable.

Against

  • 💥The episode outcome was too predictable.
  • 💥The ancient Chinese folklore surrounding the story is tiresome.

This post contains spoilers for Kung Fu.

The CW’s martial arts reboot Kung Fu has finally premiered featuring a predominantly Asian cast to right the wrong of yellow-face that was done in the original series. In this updated version of Kung Fu, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang) returns home to San Francisco after spending three years at a Shaolin monastery. Now that Nicky is back home, she must deal with the family and community she abandoned and some supernatural forces from her time at the monastery. 

The series begins with a classic CW introduction as Nicky Shen explains who she is and her background. During her senior year at Harvard, Nicky goes on a cultural trip to China, only to find out her mother arranged for her to meet potential Chinese boyfriends. Nicky freaks out and is taken in by Shaolin nun, Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai), to her Shaolin monastery where she decides to live and train with her fellow warriors. After three years at the monastery, Pei-Ling tells Nicky that she will one day have to find peace with her family, but Nicky says that this place is her home now. Everything changes one night when the monastery is attacked and Nicky fights her way to find her mentor dying after being stabbed by the assassin, Zhilian (Yvonne Chapman). The assassin steals a mythical and powerful sword from the monastery and battles it out with Nicky. When Nicky grabs the sword, it immediately burns her hand, allowing Zhilian to stab Nicky in the shoulder causing her to fall off a cliff. Fortunately, Nicky is able to hang on and survive. The fight scenes between Nicky, Pei-Ling, and Zhilian were beautifully choreographed with fighting styles ranging from Shaolin Kung Fu to Wushu to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon aerial stunts. Unfortunately, the series is given a supernatural story surrounding an ancient Chinese weapon, which did feel like an outdated old school Chinese martial arts movie. 

Fortunately, the strongest part of the pilot was when we get to see Nicky and her family just be an average Asian American family. With nowhere else to go, Nicky ends up going home to her family with not-so-open arms. Her father Jin (played by everybody’s Asian dad, Tzi Ma) welcomes her and ushers her into the house to see everyone. Nicky immediately notices his black eye, which he dismisses as an accident with a ladder. Nicky’s newly-engaged big sister Althea (Shannon Dang) greets her sister with a big hug and introduces Nicky to her fiance, Dennis (Tony Chung). Nicky’s younger brother Ryan (Jon Prasida) and their mother Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) aren’t as thrilled to see her. In a scene that felt very real for most Asian daughters, Mei-Li is angry at Nicky for not returning home, but does add on the guilt trip by mentioning the sacrifices she had made for her daughter. She then proceeds to ask Nicky, ‘if you were so miserable, why didn’t you say something?’ Frustrated, Nicky walks out of the house, but Jin stops her and, in the most heartbreaking moment, begs her to not run away again.

After failing to reconnect with most of her family, Nicky visits her ex-boyfriend, Evan (Gavin Stenhouse), who is now an Assistant District Attorney. Nicky reveals to Evan about Pei-Ling’s killer in hopes to find a connection with local triads. He agrees to help her and they have a sweet moment between the two, revealing there are still some romantic feelings there, but are interrupted by Evan’s girlfriend, Sabine.

Feeling defeated, Nicky confides in a vision of Pei-Ling, promising to find her killer, but Pei-Ling tells her everything is connected and that she must make things right with her family. As Nicky is walking to her parent’s restaurant, she finds Jin beaten up by a local gang. Jin is immediately taken to the hospital to recover.

The next day, Nicky visits Ryan at his clinic at the Chinatown Community Center and reconciles over a game of ping pong, which they used to play often together. Ryan is angry that Nicky left him when he needed her the most - his coming out to his parents. In one of the most relatable moments, Ryan reveals that his parents pushed the news under the rug and never mentioned it again. “Good old fashion Chinese denial,” Nicky says under her breath.

During Nicky’s time at the community center, she runs into the handsome T’ai Chi teacher, and Chinese Art History graduate student, Henry (Eddie Liu). There is an instant connection between the two, which causes an Asian ‘auntie’ to make a comment about them being a cute couple. Good ole Asian auntie. Nicky does ask Henry for his help regarding the mythical sword and starts digging into it some more.

Back at the hospital, Jin and Mei-Li reveal to Nicky what’s really going on with the local gang. Mei-Li borrowed some money from a mobster, who is expecting double the money by the end of the week or else they’ll kill Jin. Determined to help her parents, Nicky enlists Althea, Ryan, and Henry to begin asking the local shops about the mobster in hopes of finding someone in the community who will talk against the mobster. During this montage of the team asking different businesses about the mobster, director Hanelle Culpepper captures the beauty and colors of Chinatown. So often on television and in films, Chinatown is depicted as a dirty and run-down city. It’s nice to see Chinatown shown the way many Chinese and Asian residents see their beloved community.

Henry runs into Nicky and tells her more about the sword, which is one of eight weapons believed to be enchanted by an ancient Chinese sorcerer. It could only be harnessed by the sword’s rightful owner.

Althea, Ryan, Henry, and Nicky continue their interview at more businesses in Chinatown, but they get a lead at a potential person who could incriminate the mobster. Nicky approaches the woman about the mobster, but quickly dismisses Nicky for fear of retaliation. Just as Nicky is about to get through to the woman, the mobster’s goons show up threatening Althea and Ryan for asking questions around town. Nicky quickly dispatches them with an assist from Henry. Liang and Liu looked flawless in their fight choreography, which is quite impressive since Liang had no previous martial arts training.

In the aftermath of the fight, Mei-Li blames Nicky for now putting a target on their family’s back. Nicky places the blame back on her mother for hiding the fact she borrowed money from the mobster to begin with. Nicky and Mei-Li then shared a tender moment, in which we find out that Nicky always felt pressured to follow her mother’s dream and not her own. And, we find out that Nicky’s mother pressured her to break up with Evan, which was the last straw for Nicky. At first, I was confused at why the series did not decide to have Evan be played by an Asian American actor to allow the series to be an all-Asian cast, but soon realized that Evan’s whiteness played a part in the story culturally. Mei-Li did not approve of Nicky and Evan’s relationship, which is typical for many first-generation immigrant Chinese mothers who want their daughters to end up with nice, successful Chinese boys.

Nicky and Mei-Li are interrupted by the woman in the shop wanting to help put the mobster away. Nicky brings the woman to the police station, but Evan says they need more evidence, which prompts Ryan to go out on his own to capture incriminating photos of the mobster at the docks. Nicky rushes to save her little brother from the mobster and his goons and does some more sweet martial arts moves. With the bad guys gone, the Shens can now celebrate Althea and Dennis’s engagement party. At the party, Henry reveals more about the swords and how obtaining them all could unlock a power that could cause them to be unstoppable. Nicky knows Zhilian is going after all of them. Nicky is determined to protect her family and the community and to stop Zhilian.

The episode is a lot to unpack, which is understandable since it is trying to set up the rest of the season. For a show called Kung Fu, many expect the martial arts to be the focal point of the story, but the family dynamics were the most interesting. It was nice to see Asian Americans just act like normal Asian Americans. Sure, Nicky is a trained Shaolin warrior, but she is still a 20-something-year-old who is trying to figure out her purpose in life, especially moving back home with her parents. The characters and their relationships with each other are relatable and the series actually have you caring about them.

It did feel like the series was trying to cater to both Asian American audiences with the family dynamic and the non-Asians with the extra ancient Chinese folklore production. Fortunately, because the pilot was written by a mostly Asian American writing staff led by showrunner, Christina M. Kim, the “ancient mythical Chinese folklore” felt more acceptable than most exaggerated Hollywood films focused on Asian culture. Hopefully, the show plays on their strengths in fight choreography and the family dynamics and less on the tired ancient Chinese mythology trope.