“I’m a Chinaman who’s never been to China. I was born in San Francisco, but I’m sure no fucking American. I don’t belong anywhere.”
Young Jun from Warrior
It is nearly impossible to describe how big an impact Bruce Lee had on the world of martial arts, martial arts movies, and action movies in general in a simple blog post. With just a handful of movies, most of which were really not that good and don’t hold up to the test of time, he solidified his iconic status as a martial arts superstar with name recognition that has lasted over 45 years past his death. But that stardom was hard to come by, especially in Hollywood. While getting moderate success in supporting roles, it would take him moving back to his childhood home of Hong Kong for him to have a leading role.
Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s was not anywhere near as diverse an industry as today. And, frankly, it’s still not as diverse as it should be. But legend has it that Bruce Lee approached Warner Brothers with a pitch about a Chinese man coming to America during the late 1800s in the search for his sister. It would be a series that not only featured an Asian leading man, but would be a vehicle for him specifically and a showcase for martial arts. Warner Brothers and ABC declined, presumably with the excuse that Americans would not accept a Chinese leading man in a television show. ABC went on to produce Kung Fu, starring David Carradine.
Flash forward to 2019, and Cinemax, with the participation of his daughter, Shannon Lee, have finally brought us Bruce Lee’s original vision for a television series. Shannon Lee, Jonathan Tropper (Banshee) and Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 3-6, Star Trek Beyond) would join in producing the series Warrior that premiered this year on the premium cable channel. So let’s dive into a non-spoiler review of the first season of Warrior, and why you should be watching it.
When the first episode of Warrior opens, Ah Sahm (played by Andrew Koji) is literally fresh off the boat when he comes face to face with the bigotry of America, specifically San Francisco. He encounters a trio of abusive immigration officers, one of whom knocks a bowl of rice out of the hands of another immigrant. They mock him as he begins to pick up the rice from the ground. Ah Sahm intervenes, trying to save the man’s dignity no matter how starving he is.
That doesn’t go over well with the cops and it gives us our first glimpse of what’s to come. When Ah Sahm quickly dispatches the cops, and is recruited into one of the biggest Tong gangs in San Francisco, the Hop Wei.
This may be a show that takes place in a western setting, specifically post civil-war, but it feels modern — specially with the language, which is very generous in it’s usage of the f-word. The almost all Asian cast exist in a Western setting that is more like Deadwood, than Gunsmoke. The costuming is almost contemporary. And it may be a small thing for some, but much of the Asian characters forego wearing the traditional queue pigtail of the period. This is significant in that the queue was actually a hairstyle imposed by the conquering Manchus to demean the Han Chinese and if one were to cut off or remove it, they were never allowed back in their country or face a death sentence.
As much as a disappointment as the final season of Game of Thrones was to me (I’m definitely working on that article), the first season of Warrior exceeds expectations. From the first episode, we are given the racial and political layout of San Francisco. There is tension between the different Tong gangs with gambling, prostitution and especially opium. There is huge tension between the Irish workers and the Chinese laborers, who they believe are stealing their jobs. And then there is a corrupt police department barely able to contain the brewing powder-keg of tension ready to explode.
Since this is based on the writings of Bruce Lee, the series is also meant to be a showcase for martial arts action. If you have watched the AMC series Into the Badlands, you will know that the martial arts in that show is it’s main selling point. But that choreography purposely goes for the more stylized wire effects and near fantasy versions of fighting. Warrior presents its fights not just in a more grounded style, foregoing what Lee used to call “that classical mess,” it can get downright brutal. You won’t see any fancy flourishes or set forms and moves that were staples of 70s era martial arts epics. You certainly won’t see gravity defying wire-work. What you will get is hard hitting grounded martial arts pioneered by Bruce Lee and seen in contemporary martial arts action films.
There is quite a stable of talented martial arts actors in the show besides the main star Andrew Koji. Jason Tobin plays Young Jun, the son of the chief Hop Wei Tong. As far as gangster performances are concerned, he is the Tong’s Sonny Corleone. Rich Ting is appropriately intimidating and lethal as “Bolo,” who is considered the Hop Wei’s best fighter. Joe Taslim, who has proven himself a dynamic martial artist in films like, The Raid: Redemption, and The Night Comes for Us, plays Li Yong, an enforcer for rival tong, the Long Zi.
On top of the top-notch action and exceptional performances lies timely and topical themes about the immigrant experience. Chinese are shunned by the white American populace. They are treated as others, uncivilized, bringing crime and disease to America, as well as taking jobs away from Americans. If this sounds familiar it is purposely so. It is an obvious commentary on the how immigrants are perceived today. And towards the end of the season, there is talks of the beginnings of infamously racist Chinese Exclusion Act.
The show is pretty much serialized but with perhaps the one exception of what could be considered filler. Yet, it is a spectacular filler. “The Blood and the Shit” is a straight up homage to classic western tropes and borrows heavily from Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. The episode takes Ah Sahm and Young Jun out of their regular element of the “blood and shit” (as Young Jun describes it) of San Francisco to Nevada as they are transporting the corpse and coffin of a Hop Wei relative. The coach driver has to make a stop at a saloon in the middle of the desert so that the horse may rest up. Besides putting up with racist remarks from fellow coach passengers, they end up having to fend off a gang of robbers. The episodes serves also to solidify the bonds of friendship that Ah Sahm and Young Jun have. But for me it is the most straight up fun of the season.
The show plays a little loose with some historical accuracy. But the tong wars were indeed real, and they were incredibly violent. The names of the gangs are different for sure. As a native San Franciscan and American born Chinese I’m a little familiar with some of those Tong names, as they are still on buildings to this day.
Although it may be confusing at times, Andrew Koji’s Ah Sahm character is the only one that speaks perfect English because his grandfather was American. Though the entire Asian cast speaks English, it only within their points of view each other. So sometimes you may here them speaking accented English in front of non-Chinese or Cantonese.
Warrior, with its hip storytelling style and willingness to take on the western genre and tell it from the viewpoint of a marginalized and many times forgotten people that helped build this country, is unique, thought provoking, and without a doubt entertaining. It has already been renewed for a second season. I’ll be looking forward to that and highly recommend checking this first season out.
I know I have been remise in mentioning the women of Warrior. I’ll try to go over them without spoiling anything, since the core of their characters play against type. Olivia Cheng play Ah Toy, a madam of a local brothel who is much more than what most people see on the surface. Dianne Doan plays a character that walks a line between the world of power plays within the Tongs and the local politicians. Joanna Vanderham plays the wife of San Francisco’s mayor, in a loveless marriage and one of the lone non-bigoted among the Americans. It goes beyond saying that they not only add to a cast of fine performances but their characters subvert stereotypes as well.
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