The undiscerning mind is like the root of a tree. It absorbs equally all that it touches. Even the poison that would kill it.
– Master Po, Kung Fu
The other night, I left the TV on Turner Classic Movies and went to walk the dogs. I came back to find my usually cellphone-centric 14-year-old niece Peilin watching The Heiress, a classic 1949 anti-romantic drama with the elegant language of the Henry James source novel, Washington Square. We watched the rest of the film together, Peilin spellbound by its fundamental mystery. Does handsome suitor Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) truly love plain spinster Catherine Sloper (Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland), or is he only after her fortune? I observed Peilin’s engrossment with renewed hope for the next generation of American women. It lasted till I saw Kung Fu.
The CW reboot of the 1970s classic series depressingly crystalizes the intellectual decline of mainstream culture over the last five decades. It didn’t have to be a work of art like the original masterpiece, which brought to television a unique, brilliant fusion of Chinese lore and the Western genre. The first Kung Fu was a feast for the eyes and mind, with incredible yet never extraneous action sequences, which made them all the more thrilling. The finest Asian and American actors of the time executed extraordinary writing and direction. An unforgettable David Carradine played Kwai Chang Caine, a half-Chinese Shaolin monk evading the Emperor’s assassins and bounty hunters in the wild West while searching for his gunfighter brother. Caine endures on his martial arts prowess, inner peace, and flashback memories of his Shaolin masters’ profound teachings, and the saga comes to a rich, satisfying conclusion.
Carradine successfully resurrected the series in a superior modern-day (1993–97) incarnation, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. It is this version more than the original that the reboot makers draw on, with embarrassing results. Of course, the new version had no chance from its conception because of its feminist influences. Horrible writing, poor directing, and mediocre acting don’t help.
The new Kung Fu is a constructional wreck. It opens with unintentionally funny first-person narration by the not-ready-for-primetime Olivia Liang as Nicky Chen, a 20-something American visitor to China. “My mother sent me on a cultural tour of China. Turns out it was a matchmaking tour to land me a Chinese husband.” Nicky walks into a hut in Yunnan Province, gets ogled by a dozen young men, and flees like Olive Oyl from Bluto in a Popeye cartoon. Any viewer with a brain may wonder what kind of matchmaking mother sends her daughter to a country where women can disappear with no trace or recourse instead of finding her a Chinese husband in America (see Flower Drum Song, 1961). But that’s more logic than writer-developer Christina M. Kim provides.
In no danger whatsoever, Nicky hides in the back of a pickup truck belonging to Shaolin nun (or maybe monkette, since there are no female Shaolin monks in the real world, but “nun” is too sexist) Pei-Ling Zhang (Vanessa Kai), a shifu (master, or is it mistress?). Pei-Ling drives Nicky to her Shaolin temple, where she sees a bunch of attractive young women in orange robes practicing martial arts on what can only be Paradise Island. It’s good to know that the same Chinese Communist Party actively masculating its military would cede a premium oasis where 40 marriageable women can live and spar with each other away from prying male eyes.
Rather than waste time with such trifles as story development, Nicky’s useful first-person narration cuts to the chase, with a bad rock-soundtrack montage of her and the girls learning to dance — I mean, fight. “These women were warriors. And so I stayed,” she says. Then the voice narration disappears, never to be heard from again.
The story picks up with Nicky and Pei-Ling in a spooky, ugly bog facing some mist-shrouded CGI peaks. “It’s been three years now, and this view still takes my breath away,” says Nicky, suggesting she may be high on opium. Pei-Ling tells her she must make peace with her family. When Nicky demurs, we await Pei-Ling’s wisdom of the East, similar to what Masters Po or Kan imparted to young Caine in the original. But Pei-Ling goes for the personal sob story instead: “You believe you are the only one with a difficult family? I had a very different life before I became a Shifu (as I figure everyone else at the temple did). So much pain and anger, regret. I too sought to find sanctuary here. But what I left behind still haunts me.” Thanks for nothing, Shifu, Nicky probably thinks.
The temple then gets attacked and burned by mostly male black-clad raiders. Pei-Ling battles her sexy evil nemesis, Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman), who seizes an antique sword, kills Pei-Ling, and knocks Nicky off a cliff. We hope, er, expect this to be the last we’ll ever see of the deep Pei-Ling, but no. She keeps reappearing to Nicky as an Obi-Wan Kenobi–type ghost in San Francisco.
Nicky goes home to reconcile with her headstrong mother, beta-male father, wacky sister, and gay brother. It takes almost 25 minutes for the brother’s sexuality to be revealed, probably a CW record. Nicky learns that her Chinese restaurant owner dad (yes, they go there) is being squeezed on a loan by Chinese gangster Tony Kang. “We have seventy-two hours to pay the money, or they say they will kill me and take over the restaurant,” the father says, showing he has his priorities straight. Nicky manages to thrash Kang’s goons and then Tony, clearly benefitting from the Shaolin skill that enables 100-pound girls to beat up 250-pound muscular men after just three years of training. Talk about a crash course.
Nicky vows to find Zhilan and retrieve the sacred sword before the latter locates seven more swords and attains supernatural power. I doubt either woman has enough time left to achieve her goal, but I don’t care. I’ll be watching more classic movies instead, hopefully with my niece.
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