In Kim’s enthralling iteration (one episode was given for review), she rights the wrongs of appropriation to fashion a modern, painfully relevant take that features high-flying action papering over a melodramatic script.
Kim’s soap opera swings arrive fast and early when, through voiceover, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang) recalls how her mother (Kheng Hua Tan) sent her to China on a matchmaking tour for prospective suitors. Rather than facing her mother’s extreme expectations, Nicky jumps into a pick-up truck belonging to Shaolin priest Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai), travels with her to a monastery, stays for three years, leaving Harvard, her family, and her boyfriend behind. Yikes!
After tragedy befalls the all-woman temple she calls home, wherein a mysterious foe, Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman) steals an ancient magical sword, she returns back to San Francisco to not just recover the artifact, but to face the life she left behind. Nicky’s sister (Shannon Dang) is now getting married; her brother (Jon Prasida) despises her; her overbearing mother has disowned her; and her ex-boyfriend (Gavin Stenhouse), now an Assistant District Attorney, has moved on to a new girlfriend. The only person still emotionally familiar to Nicky is her doting father, played by the consummate Asian dad, the acclaimed Tzi Ma. All of these beats arrive frankly, in a rushed sorta way, making their earnestness highly melodramatic.
Outside of the basic premise, Nicky’s Shaolin monk training, this “Kung Fu” bears little resemblance to Carradine’s wandering Western-themed series concerning the exoticism of martial arts and the East. Rather the modern reboot’s closer model appears in the crime fighting, San Francisco Chinatown-set 1990s iteration, “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues,” wherein Carradine, playing Kwai’s grandson, battles local crooks with his son Det. Peter Caine (Chris Potter).
In this first episode, Nicky similarly battles the same forces when she discovers that local kingpin, Tony Kang (Tristan Liu), is shaking down her father after her mother took out a $50k loan from the crime boss. With their debt to Kang now skyrocketing to $100k, his goons put her father in the hospital after a vicious beatdown, causing Nicky to take matters into her own hands. She and Henry (Eddie Liu), a possible dreamboat love interest, plan to find other Chinatown business owners struggling under the oppressive thumb of the loan shark. With the real rise in violence against AAPI folks, most notably the recent shooting of eight Atlanta spa workers, seeing the Asian characters in “Kung Fu” band together to defend themselves against brutality carries an added, unintended weight—a power that hits with significant force on every leg sweep and impactful punch Nicky delivers.