I have no recollection or attachment to Kung Fu (1972) that this current remake/re-imagining is based on. That said, a cursory look at the history of the original indicates that it starred a white man playing the mixed Chinese-American lead so with the 2021 version starring an Asian woman, we’re at least starting with some (very basic) good graces if nothing else.
If you have seen no other information about this series before this review, I shall provide you the same basic information that the show kindly provides the moment you start the pilot.
Nicky Shen was raised by her parents to go to Harvard from the moment she was born, and after going to a trip overseas to China ostensibly to connect with her heritage, actually to find a nice “Mr.” to go with her eventual Harvard degree, she ends up hopping in the back of a truck and gets taken in by a Shaolin monk and spends three years training in explicitly-stated-not-to-be-mystical martial arts before the monastery is attacked by a mysterious assailant and kills Nicky’s master. Alone with no one to guide her, Nicky makes her way back home to San Francisco where she has to deal with three things: her family, the local Triad, and the looming presence of the mysterious assailant.
None of that really is a spoiler. That’s just the premise of the show. And all of that’s explained within the first 10 minutes. And all of this is incredibly consistent with what you would likely expect if you were to randomly hear that the CW is making a martial arts drama. Clearly, we’re following a template narrative that is a little too familiar, so the enjoyment of the show is going to hinge heavily on the execution. As such, Kung Fu is very much a CW show produced by Christina M. Kim (the creator of this version), Ed Spielman (the creator of the original), and Greg Berlanti (the architect behind a large swath of the CW’s enterprise).
Kung Fu (2021) knows that its premise is somewhat ridiculous and plays into it. There is a reasonable degree of camp with over-the-top dialog and exposition as well as random fight sequences that exist to remind us of the wuxia influences. The show tries to tackle a lot within the 40-ish minute run time, mostly trying to establish all of the internal turmoil that Nicky (Olivia Liang) is going through having abandoned her family for three years and seeing her master die. It also tries to deal with her relationships with her:
- Happy-to-see-her father who has gotten in trouble trying to stand up to the Triads
- Perpetually-disappointed mother who hasn’t quite forgiven her daughter
- About-to-be-married sister
- Recently-out-of-the-closet brother
- Former paramour who moved on, but conveniently is the assistant district attorney
- Potential new paramour who also happens to be an expert in Ancient Chinese History and folklore
Like I keep repeating, there is a lot going on within a very short time span. I do appreciate some of the familiar Asian American family dynamics. More than once, there were moments where I reflexively smiled or winced at something that had been a constant occurrence in my life growing up. But also more than once, there were times that I rolled my eyes at the bare-bones dialog that was used to give us the information as quickly as possible with next to no nuance.
The acting was fine given the script, and I will say that Olivia Liang is a charismatic lead and as the backbone of the show she does anchor it well. Special mention also goes out to Tzi Ma who plays Nicky’s father who definitely left the most emotional impact out of all of the main cast during the first episode. The fight against the Triad is definitely a little overplayed at this point, and the fight choreography is on-par with other shows from the CW, entertaining enough to keep watching.
Ultimately, I think the biggest compliment I can give Kung Fu is that I enjoyed it significantly more than Iron Fist. I like the centering of a Chinese American family in a story heavily inspired by Chinese martial arts and mythologies. I like Nicky’s motivation and character even if it veers a little too hard into camp. I like how up front the show was from the start about what it was and what it was going to be like. I think there are other shows on the market that fulfill the martial arts drama niche a little bit better, but Kung Fu slots in nicely on that CW’s comfort food platter and while it may not be the best thing you’ll see, it’ll be fun at least.