When I saw the opening seven minutes of Mortal Kombat on Instagram, it was the first time I’d felt anything in the realm of joy in over a month. Given the contents of the clip, I was also a little horrified at myself.
Faithful to its video game source material, the violence in the film begins almost immediately. Within the opening minutes, a woman dies. A child dies. Hanzo Hasashi—the man who will become Scorpion, the character in the game I played most often growing up—liberates what looks like quarts of blood from the bodies of his masked opponents before confronting his nemesis, the man who will become the ice-wielding assassin Sub-Zero. The teaser leaves you at the edge of a fight that promises to be an enthralling one; here, once again, someone will surely die violently.
The theatrically gory film was an odd source of comfort during the weeks-long despondency I felt following a series of shootings in Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent. With a never-ending reel of brutal violence against Asians circulating online, there was something refreshing about escaping into a world populated by people who look like me and who are portrayed as strong.
Coming at the end of a year that gave rise to more than 6,600 reported instances of anti-Asian hate between March 2020 and March 2021, and where assaults continue almost daily across the country, watching a group of Asian characters wield their bodies with physics-defying agility and precision to deliver bouts that look and feel more like physical dialogue than combat made for a stark contrast to the images I was seeing on news broadcasts and social media, which tend to foreground Asian bodies as quiet, passive vessels for someone else’s rage.
Examining some of the most brutal recorded attacks that have taken place this year—on elders Vicha Ratanapakdee, Vilma Kari, and Yao Pan Ma—the abridged stories captured on camera repeat the same refrain: The Asian body appears and is brutalized; that’s all that we see. For Asian Americans, these scenes invite us to participate in a ritual of vicarious trauma: Without sound, our minds train instead on the movements of the bodies that appear on screen. We imagine ourselves and our loved ones in the only body that bears our likeness—the victim’s—and our own bodies are activated by the input of threat.
Up until recently, however, Hollywood has arguably done little to provide counter-narratives to these stories, narratives that acknowledge the real-life experiences and agency of the individuals who are navigating what it means to be Asian in America in real time. A report released last month—co-authored by sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, and Stacy L. Smith, founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative—revealed that in the top 100 films of 2019, just over a quarter of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) characters die by the end of the film—and all but one dies violently. The study also notes that 42 percent of the API characters experienced disparagement, including racist/sexist slurs, with 30 percent being tokenized (meaning they were the only Asian character in the film or scene) and 67 percent channeling tired Asian stereotypes. Notably, only 13 percent were portrayed as “fully human,” (ie, complex characters with agency) which the report measured in terms of them having a wide spectrum of relationships.
I wasn’t alone in gravitating toward media where strong Asian characters took center stage. After the shootings in Atlanta—and after the video of Vilma Kari’s attack went viral—Yuen, the report’s co-author, told me that she and her friends started watching Kung Fu on The CW, a reboot of the 70s show starring David Carradine that premiered in early April.
Though the original was not without its shortcomings (the lead role, of a half-Chinese Shaolin monk who wanders the Wild West, went to the white actor instead of Bruce Lee, despite Carradine having no prior martial arts training), the CW series gives the story a 21st century update. This time around, the lead is an Asian woman—and, importantly, an Asian woman who kicks ass. Olivia Liang’s Nicky Shen stands alone as the only Asian American woman lead on network television right now, and her characterization as a strong and capable defender of her hometown of San Francisco offers some counterweight to the blunt fact that Asian women are twice as likely to report being targets of anti-Asian hate than Asian men are.
“Certainly, our show is not the solution, but I hope that we are a part of the solution,” showrunner Christina M. Kim said in a press conference a day after the Atlanta shootings.
As Yuen sees it, the show’s main draw is its constellation of rich characters with developed backstories. “As an Asian American watching it, I feel empowered, not just because there’s martial arts but also in seeing people who aren’t just the sidekick, or the friend, or the villain,” she said. “They are the leads, and you feel like you can see yourself in different parts of them.” Ultimately, she said, that’s the goal of the report: for Hollywood to represent API characters as complex, multidimensional human beings—just like in real life.
The Kung Fu reboot isn’t the only recent work that draws on martial arts as a vehicle for telling more three-dimensional human stories. The Paper Tigers—a charming comedy about three washed-up, middle-aged former kung fu disciples looking to avenge their sifu’s murder—uses the martial art as a way of telling a story about redemption, brotherhood, and becoming men.
Released to streaming platforms and select theaters on May 7, The Paper Tigers complicates the strong-versus-weak narrative by presenting its heroes as both in different moments. They’re strong when they’re aligned to the teachings of kung fu—which espouse traditional Eastern values like honor, discipline, humility, and bravery—and weak, both physically and morally, when they stray from them. Throughout the film, the men contend with choosing when to fight and when to walk away: When his son gets beat up by the school bully, Danny, the lead character, tells the boy that he should have walked away from the kid who has been terrorizing him and his friend. Later, after one of the Tigers is sorely wounded, Danny heads off to a fight, but not before calling his son to tell him that he’s proud of him for sticking up for his friend. Fearing that he might not make it to see another day, he tells his son how to make a fist, but offers this information with a warning: “If you go looking for a fight, that makes you the bully.”
Beyond the moments of pitch-perfect comedy (see: the many fortune cookie-worthy proverbs doled out by a white sifu, the men’s former schoolmate rival, in Cantonese, which none of them understand), there’s also something deeply gratifying about seeing bodies, out of practice for 25 years, reckon with their limitations and slowly relearn their discipline, building back their strength over time. Tran Quoc Bao, the film’s writer and director, said he wanted to highlight martial arts as a practice of discovering one’s inner strength, and learning the right moment to express it. “With martial arts,” he said, “it’s that constant sharpening of the sword knowing that you can hang it up and not use it.”
As it turns out, the film’s resonance with the present moment is something of a coincidence: Tran conceived the story a decade ago, drawing on his experiences growing up in a multicultural martial arts community in Seattle. He never imagined it would be released during a pandemic, much less at a time of surging racist violence.
“Obviously, there’s a different subtext now that kind of lingers in the air,” he told me. Still, with its subtle allusions to race and cultural appropriation, the film hits upon facets of the Asian American experience that feel just as relevant now as they did several decades ago. Importantly, it’s also an Asian American film that exists on its own terms. Though it centers non-white experience, it doesn’t announce itself as such—not to the point of color-blindness, but in a way where cultural difference feels normal, and honored.
It’s nice to see martial arts, and kung fu especially, treated with reverence and respect. Although kung fu and martial arts movies have been a part of Hollywood’s diet since the 70s, the form has too often been relegated to an unintentional sub-genre of comedy—one replete with its fair share of racist stereotypes. As the report notes, a large component of the anti-Asian racism perpetuated in pop culture is the representation of Asian men as weak and effeminate compared to their Western counterparts—an emasculation that continues to be expressed by Hollywood through the physical domination of Asian characters by predominantly white leading characters.
One of the most notorious examples is Quentin Tarantino’s characterization of Lee, the most beloved and celebrated martial artist of all time. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Lee character—caricatured as a toxically masculine showboat—challenges Brad Pitt’s stuntman character Cliff Booth to a three-round fight. It technically results in a draw, but Lee walks away humiliated after Booth handily throws him into a car.
Yuen described the scene as exemplifying American pop culture’s impulse “to take a strong Asian man down a notch.”
“They get these really amazing Asian actors who are at the top of their martial arts game, and then they have the white lead beat them up in order to show his prowess and maintain a kind of racial hierarchy,” she said.
Not surprisingly, over the past year, there have been disturbing reflections of that dynamic in real life. After a man of Chinese descent was assaulted in an unprovoked attack outside New York City’s Penn Station in March, his attacker reportedly assumed a mocking kung fu stance before fleeing the scene.
“It makes them feel better about themselves to beat up an Asian whom they feel is the enemy, because Hollywood has historically represented Asians as enemies,” said Yuen. Trump’s “kung flu” rhetoric from last year, part of his campaign to scapegoat Asians as foreign vectors of disease, certainly hasn’t helped.
Warrior, a Cinemax original series with an Asian-dominant cast that premiered in 2019, is yet another martial arts-related project that attempts to examine and subvert this sort of racist scapegoating. With a premise conceived by the late Bruce Lee himself, the show is set during the Tong Wars of San Francisco in the 1870s—a period in American history that arguably gave birth to some of the most enduring and damaging Asian American stereotypes, from that of the disease-carrying foreigner to the Chinatown gangster and the brothel worker. The series follows Ah Sahm (played by Andrew Koji), a kung fu prodigy who becomes a hatchet man for a powerful tong, or criminal brotherhood, as it vies with rivals in Chinatown for control over resources. Notably, it’s set on the eve of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively banned all immigration from China until 1943, in addition to prohibiting Chinese immigrants from becoming American citizens.
“[In the show], we are dealing with the introduction of the Chinese mythology and propaganda machine,” said Olivia Cheng, who plays Ah Toy, a fictionalized version of the eponymous Chinatown madame known as the first recorded Chinese prostitute in America. In an interview with VICE, Cheng said that she was challenged with not only honoring the real Ah Toy’s life but also playing against the traps of one of Hollywood’s favorite and most harmful tropes about Asian women: the “dragon lady,” an Asian femme fatale who wields power through sex.
I began the show a month after the Atlanta shootings, shortly after it was announced that the series would be renewed for a third season, on HBO Max. Given the heartbreak and impotence I felt, I wasn’t surprised to find myself drawn to Ah Toy, an Asian female character who seems fully possessed of her power as she navigates gender dynamics and a racist criminal justice system—power structures that are not only designed to oppress her but that render women like her entirely disposable. In the first season, when the police raid Ah Toy’s brothel as a means of signalling to its white citizens that it’s “cracking down” on Chinatown crime, she bribes the sergeant with a few calm words and a small red envelope. “A gift for Chinese New Year,” she says, meeting his gaze with an unflinching stare.
Cheng told me that other Asian women have expressed being triggered by her character’s profession, which she understands. She said she had to overcome her own reticence about Ah Toy, but ultimately decided to lead with her character’s humanity. “I definitely feel a responsibility,” she said. “I think you’d have to be incredibly vacuous to be in my position and not.”
Every character in Warrior contends with different articulations of power, said Shannon Lee, executive producer of the show and Bruce Lee’s daughter. “We’re presenting power when it gets out of control and the people who have to participate in that culture, who are the victims of that culture but who don’t think of themselves as victims,” she said. “They think of themselves as humans. They want what every human wants, and are fighting for it.”
As violent as Warrior can be (and disquietingly close to our current reality), I have been enjoying getting to know these kaleidoscopic characters—people who reveal new sides of themselves with every power play. Even as I tense at the scenes of racist confrontation (in the opening two minutes of the series, a white immigration officer singles out a man disembarking from the boat, calls him “Ching Chong,” and knocks him to the ground), I can take cover in characters with the agency to defend themselves. I can see them fight, and I can see them win.
“Catharsis is something that people need right now,” said Hoon Lee, who plays Wang Chao, a quick-witted black market arms dealer. “In the context of a show, you can experience—and, hopefully, exorcise—some of that rage that you might not know what to do with otherwise. That’s a primary function of storytelling.”
Martial arts might be a safe bet for a Hollywood looking for low-hanging fruit when it comes Asian representation, but in this new slate of film and television shows, it’s also the Trojan Horse: a vehicle for Asian characters whose identities are as layered and complex as people are in real life. And while, yes, these bodies encounter brutal violence, they survive to experience what lies beyond it—joy, grief, rage, and humor together. In devastating times like these, we need storytelling that shows us that access to the full spectrum of human experience is possible—not just suffering.