Reboot as Political Performance

Wiser heads are behind The CW’s new “Kung Fu,” which not only casts Asians as Asians but makes its hero a woman. And moves the principal locale out of the Wild West and into current-day San Francisco. And eliminates a lot of the Taoist profundities that informed Carradine’s dialogue. And no one says “Grasshopper.” So, basically, it’s an entirely different show. Albeit with the same name and a similar number of slo-mo spinning back kicks. (‘Kung Fu’ Review: Marshaling the Art of the Reboot, [WSJ])

The original Kung Fu series was a mediocre but moderately pleasant tv show. The casting was embarrassing—along with racial issues, Carradine’s personality barely carried the show. The action was weak, but what can you expect with a weekly, low-budget show.

What kept me coming back to Kung Fu was the “Daoist profundities”, because they were periods in which Caine and supporting characters can meditate on the situation in a moral and spiritual way. In the episode “The Tong”, Caine performs a shadow puppet allegory for a child who has run away from the town’s gangsters. His story describes the circularity of power:

You see the stone cutter chipping away at the mountain. He must work very hard all day long just for a few grains of rice. Now here is the lord of the province, on his horse. The stone cutter is filled with envy. Which would you rather be? The lord of the province or the stone cutter? The sun beats down on the lord of the province. With all his power, the lord of the province cannot make the sun stop shining. Do you still want to be the lord of the province? With all of its power, nothing can stop it. But wait, what is this? It is the cloud, that falls across the face of the sun. And snuffs him out like a candle. Now you’re the mightiest thing under heaven and earth. Are you contented? That is the mountain, it is in your way, cloud, what do you do now? You cannot get above it. You will wear yourself away. Congratulations, you have made the wisest decision [the mountain]. Now the sun cannot melt you, the rain cannot wash you away. Nothing can disturb your serenity. [The stone cutter appears again, chipping away at the mountain]

The beauty of this scene is that it does not even put a button on what it all means, or why it is relevant to the episode at hand. It’s not hard at all to understand in Nature, no being is immortal; we are all subject to the reality of Nature.

These types of scenes are few and far between in the original Kung Fu series. If the Wall Street Journal is accurate about the reboot cutting out what I found to be Kung Fu’s only redeeming feature, I find the choice to call it a reboot confusing, given how it has given up everything that might have provided the essence of the original. Why name your show after a series you have no respect for, that you want nothing to do with? Why not call yourself an original name, or at least explicitly state that this is not a “reboot” but a desire to use the phrase Kung Fu because it’s just nice and short?

WSJ’s John Anderson ends with this thought:

From what one can tell, the production itself makes a political statement, but the storyline won’t.

This phenomenon has been increasingly common over the past decade: The production of a movie or tv show is the political statement, but the show’s actual content signifies nothing in particular. We saw this with Black Panther and the recent Ghostbusters, where nothingness was elevated by racial or gender pandering. In a postmodern society as this one, where we’d rather watch how the sausage is made than actually eat the sausage, audiences might be looking for political performances from the production—the content of the movies barely matter.

It appears that subversive filmmaking or showrunning would rather pick low-hanging fruit in production rather than put the effort into making original, quality shows that subvert assumptions about our daily lives. If the new Kung Fu has nothing of the original, and is decidedly unpolitical in its narrative drive, what’s the point? More mediocre dialogue, more mediocre action, more self-congratulatory pedantry for putting lipstick on a pig.