Diversity in mainstream films and TV – or lack thereof – has never been more talked about than it is right now.
It’s ideal timing for one of the very few US dramas featuring a predominantly Asian-American cast to hit mainstream streaming.
Kung Fu, the newly rebooted 1970 series of the same name, hits Aussie screens on Binge tomorrow, June 3, with new episodes dropping weekly.
Produced by Warner Bros., it follows a young Chinese American woman skilled in martial arts, who is forced to defend her hometown of San Francisco when it’s overtaken by crime and corruption.
Up-and-coming actress Olivia Liang – who plays the titular character Nicky Shen – is professionally overwhelmed to score such a role.
But it hits a strong personal note too.
“We always knew the show would be important to many but we didn’t realise just how important it would actually be. And then when it came out (in the US) we saw the impact of what representation in media does to people and how people can feel seen and heard and understood,” Liang, 28, tells news.com.au.
“Then we realised we didn’t have that growing up, and it’s something we wish we had but are so glad we get to provide to young audiences now.”
Liang’s co-star Eddie Liu plays Nicky’s love interest and martial arts expert, Henry Yan.
He says he was equally unaware of how poorly his culture was represented on screen when he was younger.
“I don’t know if I felt like we didn’t have enough representation. I think I was programmed to feel like the little we had was normal,” the 27-year-old said.
“That was the paradigm I was operating in. And that’s how sad that is.
“The fact we can come in now – and the same within the last few years more films are landing – hit the mainstream, have major studio backing and budget and see it being accessible around the world, is really just special and incredible and unbelievable, that we could even tip the needle to shift the paradigm.”
The discussion has grown louder recently thanks to a stream of high profile names finally taking a stance against award shows for their failure to recognise a diverse range of work.
More recently it was the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – the voting body for the Golden Globes – which came under fire, with Tom Cruise reportedly returning his three awards following disappointing 2021 nominations and revelations the organisation didn’t have a single black member.
But there’s a very real life problem that isn’t just about who’s being given the spotlight in Hollywood.
When COVID-19 emerged last year, there was a spike in Asian hate crimes due to the disease originating in Wuhan, China, triggering the “Stop Asian Hate” movement.
The campaign picked up momentum again recently following a mass shooting at massage parlours in Atlanta in March, where six Asian women were killed.
While combating deep, systemic stereotypes isn’t going to happen overnight, both Liu and Liang agree fair representation is paramount to getting there.
The duo are backed by an A-team Asian-American cast including Mulan’s Tzi Ma, Crazy Rich Asians’ Kheng Hua Tan and The L Word: Generation Q’s Shannon Dang.
“[Representation is] essential to combating stereotypes,” Liu said. “Seeing what’s happening in the news over and over again every single day is just heartbreaking, to the point where sometimes I’m just numb to it. I just have to be or else I won’t be able to get through the work day.
“I think one of the reasons why I love being part of this show is we get to bring out the humanity in these people who look like us. And they are at the forefront of the story. We’re not just in the background as silent masked ninjas.
“The more we allow people to see our humanity, the more it helps the solution.”
Liang added, “It feels silly to reduce part of the solution to just representation in media, but it really does help.
“It’s us humanising ourselves through storytelling and people who don’t see Asian people very often.
“If they invite us into their homes, they can connect with each character on a human level which will just erase the otherness they may be feeling about us.
“It premiered after the horrific tragedy in Atlanta. And to portray a strong Asian woman who is fighting back and not apologising for who she is and standing up for what’s right, it felt like what the world needed to see at that moment.”
Stream new Kung Fu episodes weekly on BINGE from June 3. New customers get a 14-day free trial and start streaming instantly. Sign up at binge.com.au
Both Liang and Liu had to undergo two rounds of Kung fu bootcamp training to prepare for filming; first leading up to shooting the pilot last March, before they returned to film in September after the pandemic halted production.
It’s safe to say they’re still exhausted.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever put my body through,” Liang said.
“I have so much respect for martial artists because they are incredible athletes, and it’s also a really gorgeous, stunning, graceful art form.
“I feel very lucky I get to learn it as part of my job and do something that is so precious to Asian culture.”
Aside from the extremely dangerous wire work that could risk injuring the show’s main stars and pushing back filming, Liang and Liu perform the majority of their stunt work.
Liu brought a martial arts background to the table, while Liang had an extensive dance background.
While they managed to perform their stunts unscathed, there was one minor injury that Liang couldn’t avoid which had nothing to do with impressive martial arts moves.
“Thirteen episodes of hardcore stunts, and the one time I got injured was walking down stairs,” Liang laughed. “I was simply walking and I started to fall and everything moved in slow motion.
“I saw the whole crew go, ‘Noooo.’”
Kung Fu has already been renewed for a second season, with both the stars set to reprise their roles.
Kung Fu premieres June 3 on Binge and airs new episodes weekly
Originally published as Why new show is an important watch