Case Study 75: Kung Fu, Episode 54–“The Thief of Chendo”

Original Airdate: March 29th, 1975 on ABC

The 1970s were a golden age for movies about dudes beating up other dudes. Martial arts movies had been around for a little while, but by the early seventies the action movies pouring out of Hong Kong were getting darker and more serious. Hundreds of movies were dubbed into English and glutted the syndicated airwaves. Soon a superstar emerged—after a lukewarm reception as an actor in LA, the martial arts prodigy Bruce Lee started making movies like The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, breaking Hong Kong box office records one after another. Enter the Dragon, the iconic movie that would rocket him to international stardom, came out in 1973, but Lee wasn’t around to enjoy the dividends of fame: he died mysteriously a month before the movie premiered. If it wasn’t for Lee and the kinds of movies he was making, Kung Fu wouldn’t exist. Hong Kong action movies had proven themselves immensely marketable and a TV series would have been inevitable anyway, but there’s been a long-running debate about whether or not the entire concept for the show was stolen from Lee outright. We know that Lee had shopped around a suspiciously similar idea for a show back in his LA days. Lee was closely considered for the lead role, and according to his widow he certainly felt like his idea had been stolen. Of course, Wikipedia hosts seven paragraphs of claims from a white TV critic that all of the ideas and IP behind Kung Fu were 100% original creations of Ed Spielman and he deserves all the credit he’s been given over the years going back to his time as an earnest young gweilo seeking the “secret knowledge” of kung fu. For any Wikipedia editors out there, I’m pretty sure that whole apologia fails to meet your standards of admissibility, but if you’re defending the honor of white people against charges of racism, then by all means break your own turbonerd rules. WHATEVER. Let’s talk Kung Fu.

Strengths

  • Interesting narrative technique. The premise of Kung Fu is that Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) flees China after a crime of passion to get in touch with the American side of his ancestry. He finds himself in the Old West and the show is a hybrid of a western and a martial arts drama. I guess we need the western touches to make the people that would rather have been watching Gunsmoke more comfortable. But in tonight’s installment, we don’t spend a second in the American West—the whole thing is a flashback embedded within a flashback. The frame narrative shows young Caine (Radames Pera) wondering what his life will be like when he’s a practicing Shaolin priest. The sage Master Po (Keye Luke) offers a prediction of what that would look like, and this prediction gives us the bulk of the episode. So the story takes place before the main events of the series, but after the young Grasshopper’s apprenticeship, and it may not have even happened. It’s entirely plausible, given the framing, that the entire thing is a hypothetical imagined by Po. All this narrative infrastructure doesn’t really amount to anything, but it’s better than a perfunctory episode where present-day Caine walks into a strange new town, meets a bunch of people he’ll never see again and has an adventure he’ll allegedly never forget.
  • Intriguing plot. Instead, recent-past Caine walks into a strange new town, meets a bunch of people he’ll never see again and has an adventure he’ll allegedly never forget. The particulars are worthwhile, though. Caine is sent from his monastery to attend to a request from the Grand Duke, Shen Ming Tien (John Fujioka, Who Finds a Friend Finds a Treasure.) But oh snap! That Grand Duke is dead, and now there’s a new Grand Duke in town, his shady cousin Chun Yen (James Hong, Kung Fu Panda,) and what do you know—he’s kind of an asshole. But oh snap! Shen Ming Tien isn’t dead, just imprisoned! Caine has to restore the rightful ruler to the throne, armed with nothing more than his wits and his sickening hand-to-hand combat skills! You could do worse, as far as stories go, but the plot can only get you so far.

Weaknesses

  • Yellowface. Ain’t no gettin’ around this one! I can already hear certain people out there complaining that I’m applying today’s modern standards to something that’s more than forty years old, except that argument doesn’t work, because it’s not like we learned our damned lesson about respectful media portrayals of Asians in the first place. Carradine’s performance here doesn’t exactly give us a lot of opportunities to suspend our disbelief—he seems to be borrowing heavily from the old “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype, since his delivery is wooden and emotionless and I know he can do better, dammit.
  • Overall poor writing. Shen Ming Tien was a benevolent ruler, but Chun Yen is more of a robber baron. Is this shown to us? Of course not. It’s told to us. More precisely, it’s told to Caine by the lovable rogue Sing Tao (Harushi). Sing Tao comes bearing a special couriered briefcase full of contrivance. He disguises himself as a priest and fellow traveler of Caine’s to pass through town undetected, but they find themselves summoned to the throne, where they’re told that they’re both going to be imprisoned. Why? Shen Ming Tien’s daughter Mei Ming (Clare Nono, 48 Hrs) is getting forced into an arranged marriage for political reasons, and apparently Chun Yen wants her to have a wedding so extravagant it requires capturing and imprisoning two priests. Of course, the real reason he needs two priests is that the whole plot to take down the evil Duke is a two man job and the writers couldn’t come up with anything remotely more plausible. The improvised scheme continues to evolve in increasingly unlikely directions. Mei Ming’s betrothed is a child, but he’s accompanied by a burly wrestler (Peter Kalua, The Paradise Connection). Caine starts a fight with the wrestler so Sing Tao can steal the key to the jail cells from Chun Yen. He gets away with the key but gets outed as a thief nevertheless. Somehow Chun Yen doesn’t kill them on the spot, because that would be anticlimactic, I guess. Eventually Caine puts things to rights and Shen Ming Tien reassumes the throne, but not before an improbable body switch trick has Mei Ming’s maid Lutien (Jeanne Joe, First Blood) hidden behind a conveniently elaborate veil, and at this point we’ve left reality so far behind that we might as well be in Harry Potter and the Chinese Anachronism.
  • Love at first sight. You know what makes this whole thing even better? Sing Tao and Mei Ming fall deeply in love the first time they lock eyes, just like humans do all the time in the real world poorly scripted melodrama. Once again, this doesn’t pay off in any way except in the form of giving motivation to characters who are already waist deep in a profoundly ridiculous scheme.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. If watching crap like this doesn’t make me appreciate the Golden Age of Television in contrast, nothing ever will.

NEXT TIME: I’ll review a show that was cancelled not once, not twice, but thrice! Let’s find out exactly how ironic the title Unforgettable is, shall we? Also, I’ll do my best to get the next post up sometime before June!

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Case Study 75: Kung Fu, Episode 54–“The Thief of Chendo”