你的路要自己走. (nǐ de lù yāo zì jǐ zǒu.) You make the path that you live.
Those are the words that change the life of Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), a Chinese American woman who, in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, decides to drop out of Harvard University and run away to an isolated monastery in Southwest China. (We’ve all been there, right?)
As the first network drama to feature a predominantly Asian American cast, this modern-day, gender-flipped reimagining of the 1970s David Carradine-starring series Kung Fu is a watershed moment. One of the things that has plagued Asian representation over the years has been the tendency to fall into common tropes or stereotypes, often leading to the creation of one-dimensional characters that fail to add anything of serious value to the plot. What Kung Fu does so well in this pilot is carefully establish the dynamics that exist within a Chinese family in a way that feels relatable to a wider Asian American audience. All of the little cultural nuances — including something as simple as calling your parents 妈妈 (mā ma) and 爸爸 (bà ba) or the mention of strange Chinese herbs that taste absolutely awful — made me, a first-generation Chinese Canadian, feel seen and represented in a way that I just haven’t experienced while watching a show on Western television. Every pilot will have room for improvement, but Kung Fu’s pilot does a fantastic job of establishing fleshed-out backstories that can be further teased out as the season goes on.
In the opening moments of Kung Fu, we are given a quick history of television’s newest heroine. For as long as she can remember, Nicky has lived according to the wishes of Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan), her overbearing mother. She was forced to learn how to play virtually every sport and instrument; she became that girl in high school whose outstanding athletic and academic pursuits earned her a spot in an Ivy League school. Hell, she even had to learn how to play the Harvard fight song on the piano when she was 5. So, Nicky shouldn’t have been too surprised when she found herself walking into a Mulan-esque modern matchmaking session during her “cultural trip” to China, orchestrated by none other than her tiger mother. With her future flashing before her eyes, Nicky decided to make a run for it, choosing to hide out in the bed of a nearby pickup truck. That truck belonged to Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai), the leader of an all-female Shaolin monastery, who tells her — in true CW fashion — to take control of her own destiny.
Fast-forward three years: Nicky is now a full-fledged member of Pei-Ling’s monastery, where she has not only honed her kung-fu skills but also developed a deep sisterhood with her fellow warriors. In the process, Pei-Ling has become Nicky’s 师父 (shī fu), or master. Determined to help Nicky learn from her own mistakes, Pei-Ling insists one day that the key to mastering kung fu is “not to hide from your pain” but rather to “find peace with your family.” Still, Nicky isn’t entirely convinced. “Peace and my family don’t really go together,” she says, essentially pleading with Pei-Ling to not send her home.
Everything, however, is uprooted during a fiery and fateful invasion later that night: In the style of old martial-arts movies, Nicky wakes up, realizes that the monastery is under attack, and starts taking down raiders one after another — all while looking for her shifu.
Pei-Ling, on the other hand, is a badass in her own right. She fends off multiple attackers at the entrance before meeting her match in Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman), a cunning but absolutely stunning villain. (It’s in times like these that you start to question which side you should be on because of an attractive villain. Seriously. Marvel did this, and Kung Fu has now followed suit.) After kicking Pei-Ling into a candlelit ancient Chinese table, Zhilan finds the one thing she was looking for in the ruins: an ancient sword that wields magical powers. She ruthlessly stabs Pei-Ling in the chest, just as Nicky arrives at the entrance, and leaves the leader to die in her protégée’s arms.
Determined to avenge her shifu, Nicky chases after Zhilan with a wooden stick and, in the ensuing battle, manages to knock the mysterious sword out of the killer’s hand. But when Nicky goes to pick it up, the weapon emits a green light and burns her own hand, proving that “the sword is too powerful” for her. Zhilan, now with the upper hand, reclaims the sword and nicks Nicky on the right shoulder, causing her to stumble backward toward the edge of a cliff. “Your shifu should have warned you. Never step in the way of destiny,” Zhilan says before kicking Nicky off the cliff. “变革 (biàn gé) [which means change or transformation] has no obstacle.”
Given that this new iteration of Kung Fu has a supernatural element that was not present in the original, the opening two fight sequences and their visible special effects definitely help to set the tone for the rest of the series. Fighting on television and fighting in real life are two very different things, but the actors have clearly dedicated a lot of time developing a strong foundation in martial arts. As the season progresses, and once the actors have more time to master the choreography, these sequences will likely get better and better.
Thanks to the magic of television, Nicky manages to pull herself up from the side of the cliff before going to a hospital and a local police station to file a full report. But with Zhilan nowhere to be found, Nicky realizes that she has only one choice: “I had to go back to the place I ran from — back to the people I hurt, my family, my ex. I had to go home.”
Nicky’s unanticipated return to San Francisco introduces us to the contrasting personalities of her family members and, with it, the complicated dynamics that exist within an intergenerational Chinese family. In many of these families, including my own, a lot of things are often left unsaid. For instance, instead of explicitly saying they love someone, a lot of my loved ones choose to express their love by offering something homemade to eat, which is exactly what Nicky’s affable dad, Jin (Tzi Ma), does when she returns to her childhood home. (There is something so comforting about seeing an Asian parent ask if their child has eaten yet before anything else.)
Everything in the Shen household seems to have changed. Nicky’s tech-savvy, larger-than-life older sister Althea (Shannon Dang) is pleasantly surprised to see that Nicky has returned in time for her wedding to Dennis Soong (Tony Chung), the high-school “mathlete” who is also a member of the wealthy Soong family. Nicky’s younger brother Ryan (Jon Prasida), however, is still mad about being ghosted by his closest confidante. But it’s Mei-Li who is probably the least thrilled to walk into an unexpected family reunion. “My daughter died three years ago,” she says flatly before walking back into the kitchen, with the bamboo steamers still in her hands. (Ouch.)
After a tense reunion with her family, and an even more futile follow-up conversation with her resentful mother, Nicky realizes that she still needs to visit one important person: her ex-boyfriend Evan (Gavin Stenhouse), whom she dumped shortly before her trip to China. While Evan holds an understandable grudge against Nicky for how she chose to end their relationship, he still clearly cares about her and reluctantly agrees to assist in her dangerous quest to find Zhilan, who could have ties to a powerful Triad. (Oh, and it also helps that he’s an assistant district attorney.)
“There wasn’t a day that I didn’t think about you, or miss you, or wish that you were with me. I was embarrassed and ashamed for letting my mom pull us apart. I should have stuck up for you more. I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t make it okay,” Nicky says, shortly before Evan’s current girlfriend, Sabine, walks in on their heart-to-heart. (Oops.)
Of course, it wouldn’t be a CW show without a classic love triangle — and Kung Fu has set up a brilliant one. While visiting a local Chinese community center, where her brother works at a medical clinic, Nicky bumps into Henry (Eddie Liu), a martial-arts instructor and Chinese art-history student. Within seconds, an older Asian woman mistakes Nicky and Henry for “a very nice-looking couple” and tells Nicky to not waste any time because “you won’t be gold forever.” While the two attempt to brush off this piece of unsolicited advice, they clearly share an instant connection, which only seems to intensify when Nicky secretly seeks out Henry to learn more about the sword that injured her.
But a magical sword and a potential love triangle are truly the least of Nicky’s problems. The biggest familial conflict occurs on the night of her return, when she finds her father beaten up and bloodied in an alley behind her family’s Chinatown restaurant. After her father survives emergency surgery for a brain bleed, Nicky decides to do some digging and discovers that her parents are at the mercy of Tony Kong, a powerful businessman who owns most of Chinatown and has a history of laundering assets with impunity. With just 72 hours until Kong comes after her parents for not repaying a six-figure loan, Nicky decides to enlist the help of Althea, Ryan, and Henry to find Kong’s other victims in the area, believing that other business owners will speak to them because “we look like them, speak the same language, live in the same neighborhood.” In the end, they’re only able to get a woman named Cindy to speak on the record — and not for the reasons that Nicky might suspect.
While pursuing a lead on her own, Nicky sees two hit men who pull a knife on Althea and Ryan. With a little assistance from Henry, she immediately steps in, punching and kicking one man into a street-vendor table and the other straight into the passenger window of a parked car. Cindy, who witnessed Nicky’s “kung-fu, butt-kicking” heroics in front of her store, says that she’s “been praying for someone like you to show up” and offers to turn on Kong when no one else will.
With only 48 hours left, Nicky pleads with Evan to let her and her siblings help with the investigation, even if it means giving them access to classified Chinese documents. He eventually concedes, leading to an evening that, Althea jokes, reminds her of high school. She is quick to note that things have not really changed between Nicky and Evan, but once she is given the universal sibling side-eye from Nicky, she decides to drop the subject.
Once the group discovers that Kong has rented warehouse space near the ocean, Evan wants to call in the cops. Yet Ryan decides to take matters into his own hands to get the photo evidence that they need, leaving Nicky to chase after him. The brother-sister duo narrowly avoid getting shot at the docks, and after fending off Kong’s security team, they chase the criminal mastermind onto the rooftop of an abandoned building.
Nicky uses a combination of stick-fighting and hand-to-hand combat to go toe-to-toe with Kong, who nicks the same area as Zhilan. It is in that moment that she has her first moment of clarity since returning home: Realizing that Zhilan and Kong are connected, Nicky knocks Kong out using a metal rod. She immediately flees the scene with Ryan, who insists that she “practically floated on air” when delivering the final blow, in one of the few comedic moments of the episode. (The show is actually strongest when it is able to combine action and drama with comedy because it makes Nicky, who is an absolute badass, even more relatable to the audience.)
The pilot concludes with a special ceremony where a fortune teller determines that May 24 is the most auspicious day for Althea and Dennis to wed. After sharing a nice moment with her family, Nicky sees Henry, who is not only taken aback by her beauty but also seems to have an explanation about the ancient sword. According to him, the sword is one of eight special weapons that was enchanted by an ancient Chinese sorcerer. If someone collects all eight weapons, there is no telling what kind of damage that they could cause.
Suddenly, everything begins to make sense for Nicky. “Maybe that’s what Zhilan meant when she said, ‘变革 (biàn gé) has no obstacle.’ Pei-Ling always said fate brought me to the monastery. What if she was right? What if this is what I’m meant to do? To protect my family, my community, and to stop Zhilan.”
• After meeting Henry, Nicky does make amends with Ryan, who reveals that he came out as gay to their parents a year ago, but they have not spoken about it since. “You left me here without an ally. You were the only one who knew everything,” Ryan says, insisting that nothing was ever the same after Nicky left. (Something tells me that we will get to see more of Ryan’s coming-out story this season.)
• In the inevitable debate between #TeamEvan and #TeamHenry, Olivia Liang has made one thing clear: She’s #TeamHevan.
• Toward the end of the episode, the Shen family says 干杯 (gān bēi), which is Chinese for “cheers.”
Correction: An earlier version of this recap mistakenly referred to Althea and Dennis’s wedding date ceremony as their wedding. It has been corrected.