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Kung Fu’s Showrunners on Crafting the Shared Tragedy of ‘Sanctuary’

Set in the immediate aftermath of a police-involved shooting in Chinatown that kills an unarmed Black man, “Sanctuary” focuses on two communities coming together to fight a common fight. Photo: Courtesy of The CW

Last summer, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the globe, CW executives approached the showrunners of their scripted shows with a loaded request: find a way to address the long-standing social movement in one way or another. After consulting with their diverse writers’ room, Christina M. Kim and Robert Berens, the co-showrunners of the reimagined Kung Fu, felt it was necessary to highlight the importance of Black-Asian solidarity in an hour-long format. Written by A.C. Allen and directed by R.T. Thorne, this week’s episode, “Sanctuary,” focuses on the immediate aftermath of a police-involved shooting in Chinatown that kills an unarmed Black man named Andre Durant (Henry C. King).

In a phone interview about the episode earlier this week, Kim and Berens reflected on the responsibility that comes with telling deeply personal stories, and offered a (spoiler-free) preview of what’s to come in the second half of the first season.

This episode includes some allusions to real-life victims of police shootings in San Francisco, such as Alex Nieto and Oscar Grant, and uses H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe” in the scene where Mei-Li (Tan Kheng Hua) is standing at Andre’s memorial. How much bearing did the events of last summer have on this episode and the way that it was written?
Robert Berens: I don’t think anyone in the room was not consumed with what was going on, and a lot of us were at protests [last] summer. In terms of the specific references, it was important that Joe (Bradley Gibson), in building out his character as an activist, not just speak generically about racism. What would a San Francisco activist be speaking about? It was honoring the actual location that our story was set in. It was extending the frame beyond the fictional story we’re telling to real victims of police violence and also trying to honor Joe’s character and depict what an activist in the Bay Area would be speaking about.

This show doesn’t have the responsibility to tell stories outside the Asian community, but the fact that you are making such an ambitious attempt means that there is a certain responsibility to get it right. Did you get any input from Black writers or consultants when you were outlining the events of this episode?
Christina M. Kim: A.C. Allen, who wrote the episode, is Black, and certainly we wanted to get everyone’s perspective. Everyone has been, as Bob said, affected by what happened over the course of the summer — but not just that, just historically. People have dealt with racism in different ways. But certainly, for this episode, we wanted to get that perspective. A.C. did an amazing job. It’s a difficult subject matter, and it’s difficult to tell a story like this on a show called Kung Fu that you wouldn’t necessarily expect an episode to address the subject matter.

Did you have any conversations that really struck a chord or opened your eyes to a perspective that you didn’t already consider?
Christina M. Kim: There’s a scene between Jin (Tzi Ma) and Mei-Li as they’re walking through Chinatown, and that was certainly our attempt to talk about racism against the Asian-American community too. I had a conversation with Tzi, and he was very happy that there was a scene in this script that addressed what it’s like to be Asian-American, to be living with racism every day and to be thinking about it in terms of safety. I think that we weren’t trying to teach a lesson; it was more like a slice of life. For the Shen family, this is something that they have dealt with for years in different ways, and then deal with in a bigger way as the events of this episode actually happen. So, he was excited about just showing it in as natural a way as possible.

Robert Berens: R.T. Thorne is a Black director who had really strong opinions about how we depicted the victim of violence in our episode. It was a collaboration at every step of the game, both with us and A.C. and, in pre-production, with R.T. A lot of conversations about how we would see him, how we would depict him. We had the mother [of Andre] (Miranda Edwards) on the TV screen and at the end of the episode, but he wanted to build out a sense of her family. You see that she’s there with her husband, and R.T. shot him at the protests that we see Joe at. It was important to him that, in very little real estate, because this is an episode where we have a lot of characters to cover, we build out his character as much as possible in small ways so that he makes as big of an impression as possible. With this episode perhaps more than any other, there was a lot of conversation about how to tell such an important story in such a tight frame. It was all productive, and R.T. killed this episode. He just hit it out of the park with every scene.

One of the things that really resonated with me was Mei-Li’s ambivalence about police violence, because it is an attitude that’s shared by people I know personally. How important was it to show that contrast, especially given the history of anti-Black sentiment in the Asian community?
Christina M. Kim: With Mei-Li, what presents at the beginning is not exactly what you would expect in the end, as we come to learn her story and how she experienced racism early on when they opened up the restaurant and how she found a way to protect her family and, through this event, finally opened up about it. I think that that’s something that’s shared. I don’t know if it’s an Asian thing or not. My parents certainly like to shield me from anything that’s potentially unpleasant or scary. It’s a defense mechanism, and it felt very real to many of us in the room that Mei-Li would deal with it in this way. But we loved that she was able to unpack it in this episode and we really got to understand the root of it and where it was coming from, and it brought the family all closer together.

What was the biggest message that you and the rest of the writers’ room wanted to send with this episode?
Christina M. Kim: When we were talking to Olivia [Liang] early on, it was really important for all of us to show that this was about two communities coming together to fight a common fight, within the frame of our world that we’ve created. As the script came in and we made refinements to it, that was really something that we were keeping an eye toward. The message that we really wanted to share was that these two different ethnic groups, in this shared tragedy, are coming together, and that’s something that is happening currently and something that we hope to see happen more.

Robert Berens: It was always very important to us that this not be an episode where Nicky Shen solves racism. Our intention was to explore these events and their impact on our characters to reveal shades of them [that] we wouldn’t otherwise see. As far as the message goes, it was very important that the root causes — the real issues — were not in any way fundamentally addressed within the body of the episode. It’s a story, and ultimately by the end of the episode, they’re able to de-escalate and resolve one local issue that’s occurring within the restaurant. But what’s happening on the streets, what’s happening in the country, is a much larger story that is not something that Nicky, as heroic as she is, is able to change or resolve in a grand way. In a sense, that’s what Nicky is dealing with. I’ll also say that Olivia had some really good insights into ways to modulate that and to protect us from making that mistake, from making it seem like that this episode is suggesting that any of these issues have been put to rest.

The show’s normalization of Black-Asian love has been incredibly refreshing, but I can’t help but wonder how Mei-Li and Jin will react if Ryan (Jon Prasida) formally introduces them to Joe.
Robert Berens: It’s honestly a fascinating story, and yes, we will tell that story. It will be very emotional, very surprising, very raw, and we’re honestly very proud of that story — that story line of Ryan and Joe, and Ryan and his parents, especially.

In episode 4, Althea (Shannon Dang) was able to make a major breakthrough and confide in Nicky about the sexual violence that she suffered at the hands of her former boss. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to tackle that subject matter on a network like the CW?
Robert Berens: For us, this is a story of Nicky’s belated homecoming after three years, and it was very important for us that we not suggest that these siblings were trapped in amber. In Christina’s pilot, Nicky sort of feels like, “Oh, I’ve caught up with everyone.” I think it was about opening up the years she missed, and we loved that story because it was honest and raw, it was surprising and it opened up a big piece of Althea’s life that Nicky and the audience couldn’t have guessed from the first episode. I think it simultaneously illuminates something very specific about Althea and how she compartmentalizes, and how she’s a people pleaser who puts on a brave face, despite carrying this incredibly heavy load. We also found, in our conversations in the writers’ room, some of our writers have had similar experiences that it felt like an authentic representation of what it’s like to carry that kind of trauma.

Christina M. Kim: We love the sister relationship. As Bob said, Nicky comes home after three years and a lot has changed, and she realizes through Althea revealing what happened in her workplace that there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done. There’s also the great burden of something that Althea has held in for a long time. Althea has already been able to play the humor so beautifully, but I think that there’s a lightness that comes with that that we see in the back end of episodes where Althea becomes even more involved as Nicky is helping people in the community and even getting more involved with story lines. So, in a nice way, it brings them very naturally even closer together.

Nicky has finally begun to find her own voice and, up until this point, she seems to be really attracted to Henry (Eddie Liu). But, of course, Evan (Gavin Stenhouse) doesn’t seem to be over her yet. What can you tease about the development of this love triangle?
Christina M. Kim: There’s a couple episodes coming up [where] we will see a different side to Evan that will be very exciting. He’s not in his assistant district attorney attire, and we definitely see a more rugged, outdoorsy side to him that was appealing to Nicky back in the day … and might still be appealing to her now.

Nicky and Henry have now begun this intriguing, high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman), as they scour the globe for these magical, green-glowing weapons. What can you tease about their overarching arc this season?
Christina M. Kim: There’s gonna be an exciting cross coming up very soon. That’s okay to spoil, right?

Robert Berens: They will cross, yes. [Laughs.] Just to pivot a little bit because I’m wary of spoilers on the crossing of it all, but we’re gonna see a delicious return of Zhilan and then a much deeper, darker, richer dive into Zhilan. I think the wonder and the joy of Yvonne’s performance and this character that Christina created is that we get to see her both as the delectable villainess — and she is certainly that and then some — and then very soon, we’re gonna get a glimpse into what drives her. I don’t think audiences are prepared for what a rich story she has or how beautifully Yvonne pulls it off. She’s got way more layers than I think viewers are aware of at this moment in the show’s run.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kung Fu’s Showrunners on the Shared Tragedy of ‘Sanctuary’