When I first heard that Fox and producer Greg Berlanti (THE FLASH, ARROW) were rebooting the hit 1970s TV series KUNG FU, I had mixed feelings. The original show starred white actor David Carradine in “yellow face” as Kwai Chang Caine, a Chinese monk who wandered the American Old West of the 1880s kicking martial arts ass and searching for his lost half-brother. KUNG FU was by no means a progressive portrayal of Asians and is often cited as a prime example of the stereotyping our community faced in Hollywood.
So on one hand, it’s always great to hear we’re getting another show with an Asian lead (the reboot will star an Asian female character) and with the added bonus that this will be a reboot of a show where the Asian lead was originally played by a white guy, but presumably will be cast with a real Asian this time around. In a way, things have come full circle and we will get to “reclaim” an iconic Asian (American) character.
BUT on the other hand, a part of me is uncomfortable at what exactly the new KUNG FU would be “reclaiming”. Because the original KUNG FU wasn’t just a martial arts series that starred a white man–it starred a white man in a role that should’ve gone to the late, great Bruce Lee. And this is where things get complicated. Because if you really want to “reclaim” KUNG FU, we have to go past KUNG FU and to Bruce Lee himself.
Which brings us to WARRIOR, the upcoming Cinemax series executive produced by YOMYOMF founder Justin Lin and Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, which “reclaims” KUNG FU in a different way—by returning to Bruce Lee’s original vision for the series.
Justin has always looked up to Bruce Lee. In fact, this very site (“YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily”) is inspired by Bruce Lee. Justin had heard the stories of how Lee had been unceremoniously dropped from the original KUNG FU so when the opportunity arose to discuss this subject with Shannon, Justin asked her if she knew any of the details regarding her father’s involvement with the series. Not only did she have details, but she had something better—Bruce Lee’s own notes for what his version of the show would’ve been.
Shannon first came upon her father’s TV archives when she became the CEO of Bruce Lee Enterprises in 2000. “I knew the treatments and notes existed but I had never laid hands on them until then,” she said. “We found them, filed them, and went about our business. But it wasn’t until Justin reached out to me and asked, ‘there’s this Hollywood lore about your dad having a treatment for this show, is it true?’ that I really revisited them. I said, ‘Yeah, I have it, actually tons of drafts and notes.’ And he asked if he could see them and I said yes.”
That led to Justin and Danielle Woodrow, the head of television at Justin’s Perfect Storm Entertainment, to propose producing a series based on Bruce Lee’s original notes for KUNG FU with Shannon. They recruited BANSHEE co-creator Jonathan Tropper to develop the show with them and WARRIOR was born.
The first episode of WARRIOR is scheduled to start shooting in South Africa next week under the direction of Assaf Bernstein and the series will premiere on Cinemax sometime late next year or in early 2019. A massive set recreating 1880s San Francisco in excruciating detail has been built in Cape Town and an international cast dominated by Asian actors including Andrew Koji, Olivia Cheng, Jason Tobin, Joe Taslim and Hoon Lee has been confirmed as series regulars.
But more importantly, WARRIOR does what Hollywood refused to do fifty years ago: cast an Asian actor in the leading role–something that’s still sadly a rarity in 2017 as we’ve seen from recent examples of “whitewashed” casting in THE GHOST IN THE SHELL and Netflix’s IRON FIST TV series.
For Shannon, the journey to WARRIOR began in the 1970s when the original KUNG FU television series premiered. While she was too young at the time to understand the details regarding her father’s history with the show, there was still something about KUNG FU that felt…off.
“When I was a kid, there were only a few channels so KUNG FU would be on and it was hard to avoid it,” Shannon remembers. “I’d watch it for a minute and think that it was so weird—seeing this white guy dressed up like a Chinese monk. My mom talked about the show and what a bummer it was for my dad. She talked about how hard he worked on it.”
What specifically Bruce Lee contributed to KUNG FU remains a matter of debate. Warner Bros., the studio behind the series, maintains that the original idea was theirs and they had commissioned a treatment prior to Bruce Lee’s involvement. But two things are not in doubt for Shannon: 1) her father not being cast in the lead for “racial reasons” and 2) how hard he worked to develop his own ideas for the show, which is borne out by the numerous pages of notes he wrote and compiled.
“He had several treatments–some titled AH SAHM (the name of the lead character), other drafts called WARRIOR,” Shannon said. “Sometimes it was a half hour format, sometimes hour. Sometimes (the lead) was blind, sometimes sighted. He also had a bunch of notes from the libraries he went to in San Francisco to do research. In his version of the show, he’s not a monk, but a hatchet man—which was a means to gain passage to the United States. He was a little more of a dynamic and aggressive character than the KUNG FU TV show. And there was more humor. A lot of people don’t know, but my dad really had a great sense of humor and it’s reflected in his pages.”
Those notes became the basis for WARRIOR and while the new series isn’t a literal adaptation of what her father set out to create half a century ago, Shannon and the show’s creative team have taken pains to remain true to Bruce Lee’s original vision: from maintaining the philosophical point-of-view that Lee infused into his work to the historical callbacks to events like the Chinese Exclusion Act to exploring issues of immigration and marginalization (issues that sadly remain just as relevant today as they did in the 1880s or 1970s)—all while making sure the audience is still getting a kickass martial arts show.
For Shannon, the chance to produce WARRIOR is about more than just bringing her father’s “lost” project to life, but about finally shining a light on another side to Bruce Lee’s talent that he was denied the opportunity to explore in the Hollywood of the 1960s and ’70s.
“I’m really thrilled to see his vision through on his behalf and thrilled to see him recognized for his creativity beyond just what a badass martial artist he was,” she said. “But just as importantly, I do feel we are righting a wrong in terms of the casting and authenticity and the opportunities that my father was denied. He wasn’t taken seriously by Hollywood and being able to acknowledge him as a creative force now, it’s very heartwarming.”
Which brings me back to the KUNG FU reboot. As much as I hope the new show succeeds and helps open more doors for Asian talent, what it mainly reminds me of is that we could’ve had a revolutionary, ground-breaking KUNG FU series fifty years ago starring not just an Asian American lead, but arguably the most iconic and charismatic Asian American lead we’ve ever seen to this day.
Check out the excerpt below from one of Bruce Lee’s treatments for what would become WARRIOR. Not only does it give a sense of what a Bruce Lee-infused KUNG FU series could’ve been, but also shows how far ahead of his time Lee was—as he explains how a show starring an Asian lead would be both “revolutionary” and “commercial”…again, a fight we’re still having to this day:
Judo, Karate, Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, etc. are collectively known as the Oriental martial art. They, especially the first two, are household names and known throughout the world. Numerous commercials are capitalizing on them, not to mention the countless Karate chops executed by secret agents and super heroes in movies and t.v. series. Martial art films of China and the samurai pictures of Japan are proven successes. “Fistful of Dollars” was a remake of Mifune’s “Yojimbo”, and along with many others. Hollywood has yet to go into this un-mined field. The Most dynamic and visual of all action pictures, they do have universal appeal.
There has not been one show done with martial arts as the theme, and definitely not by an Oriental actor (which is such a natural), who in this case will also be a capable martial artist as well. But most important still, he will come across on the screen because that is his life, his character. Just as the worn out Karate chop is out, this is the right time to have an Oriental “do his thing”……to really do it like it is. This is a revolutionary idea and definitely very commercial.
So while I applaud the new KUNG FU’s producers and their efforts to right a wrong by rebooting the series with an Asian lead (who will be paired with a presumably non-Asian Korean War vet character), for me, if you truly want to “reclaim” something that was, in effect, “stolen”—you need to go back to the original and when you’re talking about the original, all roads lead back to Bruce Lee.