Kung Fu 1×01 Review: “Pilot”

Kung Fu pilot
Pictured: Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen — Photo: The CW — © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Kung Fu, The CW‘s reboot of the 1970s show of the same name, premiered last night. The pilot did a fantastic job of establishing the characters and setting multiple mysteries in motion. I was mildly interested in the series after seeing the ads, but after the pilot I am 100% hooked on this show.

I know very little about the original Kung Fu, but considering the time period (the 1970s weren’t exactly known for authenticity in portraying different ethnicities) and the fact that the lead was whitewashed, it wouldn’t be difficult to make the story better. The reboot seems determined, particularly in the recent trend of increased anti-Asian violence in the wake of the pandemic, to right the wrongs of the original. The main character in the reboot is a woman, and the show features an almost entirely Chinese cast, as well as a Chinese writer and executive producer in Christina M. Kim.

The Kung Fu pilot jumps right into the meat of the story, and the story is this: three years ago, Nicky Shen went to China on what she believed to be a cultural tour. When she discovered her mother had sent her on a matchmaking trip (after coercing her into breaking up with her white boyfriend, Evan), Nicky fled. She met Pei-Ling, the shifu of a Shaolin monastery, where she learned kung fu. In present day, the monastery was attacked by a woman named Zhilan and an army of masked raiders, who killed Pei-Ling and stole an ancient magical sword. With nowhere else to go, Nicky returns to San Francisco and works on mending the relationships that crumbled when she ran away.

As I said, the pilot does a great job of setting everything up. In a single episode, we’ve been introduced to all the major players and laid the groundwork for the series’ two separate (but probably connected, come on, you know it’s coming) plot arcs.

The first arc involves the mysterious Zhilan and the sword; as we learn later in the pilot, it’s actually much bigger than that, with the sword being only one of eight magical artifacts that, when combined, can unleash a terrible power if they fall into the wrong hands. The second arc revolves around Tony Kang and his corrupt control over San Francisco’s Chinatown, which directly puts the Shen family in danger as they owe him money or they will lose their restaurant.

Kung Fu pilot
Pictured (L-R): Eddie Liu as Henry Yan and Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen — Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW — © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Both mysteries are gripping and sure to be interesting in different ways. Zhilan and her hunt for the artifacts will introduce Chinese history and culture in a way you don’t often get to see on Western TV. (For example, I am in love with the fact that when Henry is telling the legend of the sword, it’s animated in traditional Chinese art.) But Tony Kang and his control over Chinatown will help showcase modern Chinese culture. Also, both mysteries being so different enables Nicky to ask for help from different sources – culture and literature student Henry and tech-savvy Althea.

But of course, the best thing about this show is the characters. I love that Nicky just full-on panicked and ran away, that she wanted to get away from parental expectations and figure out who she was. I also like that the implication is she is still searching. Her relationship with her parents is complicated, which is understandable, and I was a little surprised to find her brother, Ryan, so hostile until it’s revealed that Nicky was the only person who knew he was gay, a fact which their parents have just elected to ignore. And it seems that Nicky disappearing inspired Althea to be a bit more “hands-on” with her family.

What I really love is the focus on women. It isn’t just that the main character is female; her teacher was a woman, she trained in an all-female Shaolin monastery, one of the primary antagonists is a woman, her mother and sister are prominent (flawed, nuanced) characters, a lot of the shop owners they interviewed in the pilot were women, and the mystical sword she is tasked with recovering was originally wielded by a woman (Liang Daiyu). Mei-Li comes across as the traditional Asian mother until you learn that she defied her parents’ will and moved to America. Althea seems like she’s going to be perky, shallow, and image-obsessed (She wants live swans at her wedding! Swans are demons from hell!), and then you discover she can hack into bank records.

Kung Fu pilot
Pictured (L-R): Tony Chung as Dennis Song, Jon Prasida as Ryan Shen, Tzi Ma as Jin Shen, Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen and Shannon Dang as Althea Shen — Photo: Katie Yu/The CW — © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

And naturally, I can’t review a show called Kung Fu and not talk about the action scenes, which were spectacular. From the choreography of the fights – in particular the sidewalk one – to the way that they are shot, these are truly fun to watch and will hopefully continue to be amazing. Also, can we talk about how my heart stopped when that one flunkie pulled out a gun, and then Henry just like appeared from nowhere and was like, “Hey,” and proceeded to kick some butt? Because wow.

I’m sure there will be some concern about how one of the love interests (it’s a CW show, you know there’s going to be a love triangle) is white, which is a perfectly valid criticism, but I think this will entirely depend on where the story goes from here. She has a history with Evan, but he has moved on, and I wouldn’t count Henry out. But Nicky’s whole reason for running away was that she wanted to learn who she was as a person, which to me would mean being single; also, she kind of has more important stuff to worry about than guys.

Basically, I love everything about this show. I love the characters. I love the family dynamics. I love that, at least from what we can tell from the pilot, both of Nicky’s love interests are stand-up guys. (And one of them is some kind of archivist, which as an archivist always makes me happy.) I love the mysteries. Kung Fu really has the potential to be amazing television, and I hope everyone gives it a chance.

Author: Jamie Sugah

Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.

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