The 1970s television drama “Kung Fu” was “groundbreaking for what it was when it aired,” says Christina M. Kim. The series brought the art of kung fu into mainstream conversation and millions of homes, also introducing Buddhism to many viewers and showcasing a way to use these spiritual elements to help people. Half a century later, that part of the story is more relevant than ever after a recent wave of anti-Asian racism and violent attacks across the United States.
When rebooting “Kung Fu” for a modern audience, creator and showrunner Kim tells Variety it was important to carry those thematic elements through, but also to finally, truly, tell the story through an Asian American lens. That’s in sharp contrast to white actor David Carradine playing the role of the half-Chinese, half-American Buddhist monk Caine in the original series that ran on ABC from 1972 to 1975.
“It was very important to me that whoever we cast was Asian and that this role encompassed not just her, but [also] her family to give a full cast of characters that were Asian American,” she says. “Also, I wanted to flip genders. I thought it was time to have a really strong female Asian lead — a role model.”
The protagonist of Kim’s “Kung Fu” is Nicky (Olivia Liang), a young woman in her 20s who recently spent time at a monastery in China but came home to San Francisco after an attack on that monastery left her shifu dead. Returning home is not a completely celebratory affair, though, as the way she left her family behind still rubs some of them the wrong way. Additionally, when she returns she learns a crime syndicate has been controlling the streets, threatening her community. While she rebuilds familial bonds and forms new ones, she uses her knowledge of kung fu to keep her community safe, and she also tries to avenge her shifu’s death.
The latter, Kim notes, is “absolutely a cat-and-mouse. [Nicky’s] going to start uncovering mysteries, find out more about this woman who killed her shifu, hunt her down, and they’re going to have some really interesting crosses with each other throughout the season.”
There is, what Kim calls, an “eye-dropper of magic” to the mythology of the show as Nicky begins to realize she possesses special abilities that go beyond her training. But she is a skeptic and first and foremost, Kim says, the show is a family drama, so that mythology will not dominate the storytelling, nor twist the tone to be too heightened to be relatable.
For Kim, who wants to use “Kung Fu” as an opportunity to show “all aspects of what it means to be Asian American,” creating a show that people can relate to is paramount. “It’s an incredible opportunity in terms of representation,” she says, “and it’s an incredibly important time for us right now.”
Although she points out that attacks on Asian Americans are not new, they are newly trending on social media and making more headlines. This makes some of the show feel more timely, she admits, because half-way through the season there is an episode that addresses such racism head-on.
“That was something that we had talked about early in the series. We shot [it] a little bit ago,” she says. “We handle it in a way where it’s a part of life — just something this family lives with and deals with, and how do we carry on with our lives as best as we can with these terrible things that are going on around us? How do we protect our family and stay safe? That’s part of the narrative because that’s just part of our lives.”
When Kim says “our” she is referencing the majority of her cast, which also includes Tzi Ma, Kheng Hua Tan, Yvonne Chapman, Shannon Dang, Jon Prasida and Eddie Liu, as well as many of her writers. Five of the writers in the “Kung Fu” writers’ room, Kim says, are of Asian descent (and half the writers are women). In crafting the story of the Shen family, they pulled from their own experiences and families.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say there’s a lot of me in Nicky,” Kim shares. “Growing up in an Asian American family with the dynamic of wanting to please your parents, wanting to make them proud, while trying to find the balance of being independent is something I went through myself, so it’s something we put into Nicky. It seemed to be a very common thing with all of my writers in the room.”
Nicky’s emotional journey in the first season is born out of her experience in the monastery, “where she learned to find who she was,” says Kim. Her relationship with her former boyfriend Evan [Gavin Stenhouse] “was the powder keg that led her to running away,” Kim explains. But in doing so, she ended up learning kung fu, which taught her to center herself and “being able to ground herself and her spirituality, it helps her become the best version of herself.” So when she returns, there is the pull of the past, but she has come back a different person. “Does a different person just fall back in with the same guy, or is there a different person who is more representative of who she is now and who sees her as who she is now?” Kim says.
Nicky will also juggle coming to terms with her place within her family and community — some relationships which are complicated by long-harbored secrets.
“Everybody in this family has a secret. We will find out that her mom has a very significant secret that will play into Nicky’s story of who she is, and then also her father has his own secret that will be revealed later in the season. Their stories are very much intertwined,” Kim previews.
“What we really focused on doing was show a well-rounded representation of Asian Americans. This family lives in Chinatown but they work and operate in San Francisco. They all have different professions. It’s a multicultural and multi-generational show,” she continues. “I want them to be seen as three-dimensional people with the same struggles as anyone else.”
“Kung Fu” premieres April 7 at 8 p.m. on The CW.