What to Watch Verdict
Sanctuary plays it safe, but fails to address the underlying problem within the Asian community towards Black Lives Matters
💥BLM-inspired episode written and directed by Black creatives.
💥Avoids the trope of Black trauma onscreen.
💥Finally, some action for Ryan and Joe - and Nicky and Henry.
💥Althea's continued story is given a lot of respect.
💥Fails to mention the history of Anti-Blackness within the Asian community.
This post contains spoilers for Kung Fu "Sanctuary"
Check out our last review here.
The topic of Black Lives Matter is a tricky one to explore in an episode of a series that does not revolve around the heavy subject matter or even have a Black series regular. Fortunately, in Kung Fu’s fifth episode ‘Sanctuary’, the episode is written by A.C. Allen, directed by R.T. Thorne, and centers Ryan’s (Jon Prasida) boyfriend and recurring (probably soon-to-be series regular) character, Joe Harper (Bradley Gibson) as the community comes together to protest an officer-led shooting on an unarmed Black man. Throughout the episode, the Shens are supportive of the protests. So much so, despite their store being tagged with graffiti stating “Justice 4 Andre”, Nicky (Olivia Liang) and Jin (Tzi Ma) stood outside the restaurant passing out refreshments to the protestors as a sign of solidarity.
It makes sense to have Henry (Eddie Liu) and the Shen siblings, who are more keyed into social justice and politics, support the Black Lives Matter movement. But knowing the history of Black and Asian tensions in the community, the topic of anti-Blackness within the Asian community seems hard to ignore. It is a really difficult topic to tackle, especially within the hour-long format. The "Sanctuary" does address some biases from the Asian community through Mei-Li’s (Kheng Hua Tan) reactions towards the shooting and the protests going on, but being one of the main characters of the series, she quickly redeems herself by being part of the solution when it comes down to it in the end.
For the most part, the episode plays it safe when it comes to dealing with Black trauma by having the Chinese community come together to stop the police from arresting Joe, after he is wrongfully accused of inciting a riot. In reality, even with the evidence that Althea (Shannon Dang) shared that proved Joe’s innocence, it probably wouldn’t have worked out that way, but I do appreciate the series not having anything happen to Joe. I understand the importance of addressing the current state of affairs in society, especially with the recent verdict of the cop who murdered George Floyd and the continued shootings happening by police on Black people. It seems like all of The CW shows have announced they will have a special BLM-centered episode, but all of that doesn’t matter if they can’t fully capture the issues behind it. For a show that is centered on Asians, it would have been more meaningful to address the elephant (anti-Blackness) in the room, even if it means introducing an irredeemable Chinese character who represents the worst of us to serve as the antagonist in the episode.
Aside from the BLM storyline, I did appreciate seeing the relationship between Joe and Ryan evolve and actually feature some intense PDA. Now that Joe and Ryan have established their relationship, I hope the series will address Jin and Mei-Li's reaction towards this newly interracial gay couple, especially after this episode. Also, if Mei-Li had a problem with Nicky dating white guy Evan, then we should definitely expect a response from the Shen parents about their only son.
The series did also give us an update on Althea's mental state after last week's emotional reveal. Like many survivors, Althea is burying herself in her work--which is wedding planning. If you keep yourself busy enough, you don't need to think about it. Then there are moments, where you pause for a second, and in that brief moment of stillness, the memories of the trauma leak in, which we saw towards the end of the episode. I really do appreciate how the writers are treating Althea's trauma because it just feels real.
As for our heroine, Nicky, I'm so glad she's finding a partner, in more ways than one, in Henry. I understand Nicky was living a Shaolin monk/nun lifestyle, but, as a woman, she really needed to dip her toes after spending 3 years among all women. The tension between the two fighting, the subtle touches, and the hilarious moments when we think it's "private sexy time, but it's really research" just adds some flavor to the initial stoic Nicky we were introduced to in the pilot.
It is unfortunate that the sole white character of the series, Evan (Gavin Stenhouse) has been reduced to being Nicky's inside man rather than the one that got away. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for focusing on the Shen family because, let's be honest, they are the best part of the show. I just feel bad that the character initially created as the breaking point that damaged Nicky and Mei-Li's relationship is now just an informant. We never even see Sabine anymore. Is he still even with her? I've only seen him working or going over to the Shen's restaurant. Give this man a purpose beyond giving Nicky favors, but not for this episode, which belonged to Joe.
Overall, the episode was fine. I appreciated the story for what it was, but it left me yearning for more details. Kung Fu is unique because it provides a narrative through the eyes of Asian Americans. I’m not one to expect a series to tackle what it means to be Asian and represent what we stand for, but if the series has taken responsibility in telling this story, then they should do it fully and throughout the series.
Laura Sirikul is a freelance writer, researcher, and managing editor of The Nerds of Color. Throughout her career, she has written for Nerd Reactor, What To Watch, Nerdist, IGN, Movie View Magazine, Red Carpet Report, Mental Floss, Trek News, The Hollywood Reporter, Character Media, Bitch Media, and many other outlets. She has been on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Nerdist's Fangirls, and many other news shows. For almost ten years, she has covered film and television extensively along with in-depth interviews with major studios such as Disney, WB, and FOX. She is also a member of the Asian American Journalist Association and the Hollywood Critics Association. Apart from addressing topics covering film and television, Laura is a strong advocate for social awareness for the underrepresented in the entertainment industry.
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