Kung Fu interview with Olivia Liang and Eddie Liu
One of 2021's most exciting new TV series is Kung Fu on BINGE. We caught up with its stars to find out more about this action-packed reboot.
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No TV series fits the term "cult classic" better than Kung Fu (1972-1975). Starring David Carradine, it combined oriental martial arts action with Old West gunslinging, through the spiritual lens of Taoist and Shaolin morality and philosophy. Heavily stylised and wonderfully unique, it's beloved by many.
It makes a reboot a challenging proposition, yet on 3 June 2021, a modern take on Kung Fu returns to Australian audiences through BINGE. At its soul it retains a common thread of a spiritual, martial arts expert doing their thing in an unlikely environment. This time it is the New West, so to speak: America's modern urban streets. Our hero is Nicky Chen (Olivia Liang) who, with the help of martial arts trainer and potential squeeze Henry Yan (Eddie Liu), protects the local community while trying to hunt down an assassin who offed Chen's teacher.
Without giving too much away, the fight choreography harkens back to the heavily stylised and unique feel of the original. And despite the serious nature of the plot, there's a sense of fun and a knowing nod to its over-the-top nature that you can see twinkling in the actors' eyes.
But perhaps more importantly, it's a TV series with a female lead and a predominantly Asian cast – including the legendary Tzi Ma and Aussie Jon Prasida – produced by a major network. It's a milestone moment in the growing calls for cultural diversity in prime time entertainment.
I caught up with Kung Fu's two stars, Olivia Liang and Eddie Liu, to learn more about the show. If you'd like to watch Kung Fu – and countless other amazing TV series – we've got a 14-day free trial to get you started.
If you want to know more about this excellent service, read our BINGE review.
Olivia Liang and Eddie Liu interview
Let's start by comparing 1972's Kung Fu series and your new show. Obviously there are a lot of immediate differences on the surface, but how familiar did you guys become with the original series, and what elements from it informed this reboot?
Olivia: The original series was a bit before my time, so I hadn't heard of it until this job came along. And once I did my due diligence and my research, and saw some clips, I think what we've really honoured from the original is that sense of this person who has a particular skillset and is using it for good; fighting for the underdog and really sticking up for what's right in the community. I think people who love the heart in the original are going to find it in our re-imagining.
The original really did a great job of pushing the needle forward in the 70s for Asian American talent, and our version just pushes that needle even more forward with an Asian family at the forefront.
Eddie, I understand you're well trained in a number of martial arts, which has no doubt been a great asset for this show. But what was your martial arts background Olivia? What kind of training did you need to do?
Olivia: Ooh! My martial arts background was driving my sister to Taekwondo classes and then watching her from the sidelines. But I have a background in dance and that translated well into martial arts choreography for film and TV. And I really just had to go through kind of a Kung Fu bootcamp leading up to shooting. Our world class stunts team whipped me into shape and really got me comfortable in the basics, so that I could at least look legit.
Just look legit? So, if you were in the street right now and you saw a crime going down, you don't think you could jump in there and...
Yes! I fantasise sometimes about it. I'm walking down the street and I'm like, "I dare you. You don't know what I can do. Come at me."
Eddie, did you play much of a role in helping Olivia master these skills?
Eddie: In between takes, when we're on set, she likes to throw a fist in my face and say "stay ready!" And I flinch, and I get scared, and my stress levels go up cause I feel like I was just about to get attacked.
Olivia: You're welcome.
Eddie: And that's her way of keeping us sharp. So, in a way, I lend my body to her perpetual training so we're always staying laser sharp and ready to perform.
From what I've seen of the fight scenes, you've got quite a unique style going on. There's almost a hint of fun, even a bit tongue-in-cheek, about them at times. How would you describe the style of the choreography?
Olivia: The choreography we went for with the fights varies from episode to episode. It's really fun. We've got kind of a very comedic fight in an upcoming episode that'll be airing soon on BINGE, and our fight coordinators and stunt coordinators are so creative. It's really amazing what they do to infuse traditional martial arts with either street fighting or a more comedic kind of fighting.
In our pilot, that first fight with Henry and Nikky when the beat drops and when I first saw it I was like, "okay, we at a club now and we're kicking ass."
Eddie: I love the style we're bringing to it because martial arts and Kung Fu has been done so much in the past. And when you embark on a show like this, it's a bit of a daunting task to live up to that legacy. But it's also really exciting to be able to bring your own flavour to it, to see what you can add to the whole genre of action TV.
Our fights differ from episode to episode, depending on what's going on in the story, and it really plays up the drama or the humour of what's going on. And I love that we get to blend slightly different styles of Kung Fu with different styles of other martial arts from fight to fight. You can see that happen. So, we've had a blast doing that.
The original had so much in the way of stylised slow-mo in its fight scenes and you guys are kind of going for a bit of a twist on that, with the way the camera pans around and so forth…
Eddie: Yeah. And then some of them don't have any slow-mo and it's just fast and high paced. It's fun for us to do, so I hope it's fun for everyone to watch.
With the original Kung Fu TV series, it's easy to focus on the Kung Fu elements for obvious reasons, but it also spoke to morality and spirituality. Can Australian audiences expect to see those undertones in the new series?
Olivia: Totally. I don't think it's a secret that my character Nikky Shen's teacher is killed within the first half of the pilot and her whole journey throughout season one is to avenge her. But she gets to see her in flashbacks in moments of meditation and I think the lessons that she learns from her teacher really honour the lessons of the original.
I think everyone would like to kick COVID's arse right now with some Kung Fu. What impact has the pandemic had on the show?
Olivia: Is it cool for me to say COVID might've had a positive impact on our show? I mean, the fact that we had to film in a COVID bubble meant our loved ones weren't able to visit. So we, as a cast, had to really lean on each other and we became so close as a result. I don't think, if we were flying back and forth from LA to Vancouver and taking weekends off, we would've gotten this close and become such a tight-knit family. That was really a silver lining of COVID for us.
Eddie: The unsexy part of COVID is that our industry took a major hit on production costs. And safety became of utmost importance. We're so glad that our COVID team was able to take care of us through all that. And then we lost some of the time we had to shoot each episode. Also looking back at what we were able to achieve with all these obstacles in our way, in addition to the difficulties that you already face without a pandemic, we're just so proud that we could pull this off and complete a whole season. And we're so grateful that everyone helped us make that happen.
However, we've also seen a massive boom in the streaming TV market, so potentially there's a bigger audience through apps like BINGE for the show?
Eddie: We would love that. Plus, while Kung Fu is focused on a Chinese background family and a Chinese American woman, when you see what the show is about I'm sure everyone can relate to it.
There's been a push for greater diversity in media of all forms in recent years, and it brought out a better representation of different cultures. Would you like to see Kung Fu become another milestone moment in that conversation, or would you prefer if it was just seen as a great drama experience?
Olivia: Both! I hope people stay because it's a great drama experience, but also come to support broader representation in media. We knew that the show was the first of its kind on a major network in the US, but we hope that it's not the last. We hope that this is just the beginning and we're really excited to see a ripple effect happen.
Eddie: We hear the phrase "representation matters" all the time. We don't just mean that in front of the camera and it's not just lip service. We really believe in it. In front of the camera, behind the camera, in the writing aspects, producing and directing, in the executive, the major decision-making positions. That's what we're trying to achieve with a show like ours.
We want to let everyone know that it's not a gamble to focus on minority talent in any way. It's not a liability. It's not a box that you can just check and move on quickly. Diversity is the future. It's something to embrace and it makes for great storytelling, because it gives you something that you haven't seen before.
It may resonate well in Australia as we're effectively part of Asia, we have a massive audience here of people with an Asian background.
Olivia: We've got our own Aussie on the show – Jon Prasida, who plays my brother.
Eddie: While Kung Fu is about a Chinese American family, Jon being Australian Chinese, there is still that Western experience as an Asian that Aussies can relate to as well if you happen to be Asian from that region. There are a lot of universal themes of what it is to be Asian, but not truly in your own country. To feel a little bit like an "other": like a bit of a foreigner in a Western place. And there are a lot of cultural nuances and nods to our heritage that we're very proud of. It's not just like a documentary on how to be Asian, but it's a really fun action-adventure drama.
You worked with Tzi Ma on Kung Fu, who is a legend with a huge body of work, but he did a lot of that work in an era before the current momentum for greater diversity. When you think about what he went through and envision the career opportunities ahead of you, how do you feel?
Olivia: Tzi Ma has been doing this for decades and he, I truly believe, is the one who knocked down these doors for us to walk through; my generation of actor. And to watch his career flourish throughout the years and all the opportunities that he has now at this stage of his career – and then to think ahead for us – we've already seen the landscape change right before our eyes.
The fact that we are here on this show on this network is really incredible, and it makes me really excited for how much more storytelling there is to come. As Eddie said, if it's happening at the top level behind the camera then it's going to translate onto camera. It's an exciting time.
Let's finish on a lighter note: What's your favourite martial arts movie of all time and why?
Olivia: Eddie is going to have a really intellectual answer, but Rush Hour, duh. I mean, talk about infusing heart into fighting. Jackie Chan is incredible and I re-watched it just the other day and it's still so good.
There's a scene with Jackie holding up this giant vase and he's fending off these attackers and trying to protect this vase at the same time. It's incredible. And, of course, our father Tzi Ma is in it. Oh, and Kung Fu Panda. You can't tell me the fight choreography is not good in Kung Fu Panda.
Eddie: I know it's a cop out, but I cannot pick one single answer. My current favourite would be Kung Fu Hustle because it's old school. It has traditional style that hearkens back to old, 70s and 80s Kung Fu cinema. But it's just so over the top and ridiculous. I've heard it described as Enter the Dragon meets Looney Tunes. And I love Looney Tunes, so what's not to like? It's so funny, and then it's heartfelt sometimes. I highly recommended it.
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