Kung Fu [Import]
Snicker if you will, but Kung Fu was one of the most influential TV series of the 1970s, one that managed to inject a note of both spirituality and Eastern religion into the standard Western formula and make it seem new. This was the pilot, an intriguing and scene-setting TV movie in which David Carradine starred as the mysterious Caine--half-white, half-Chinese, reared in a Shaolin monastery in China by blind master Po (Keye Luke), then exiled to America, on the run for killing the men who killed his master. The pilot mixes flashbacks to Caine's youth with a story set in the Old West of Caine battling intolerance as he begins the search for his father. --Marshall Fine
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One subtle scene of respect occurs midway in the film when the adult Caine is working on a desert railroad somewhere in the western region of the United States. A heavily loaded wagon threatens to tip over, and Caine rushes over to prop it up with his surprisingly strong skinny arms. As he raises his arms, the Chinese crowd sees the tatoo of a dragon on his arms, and they bow in reverent silence. Later at the end, Caine must fight an outlaw monk whom he kills, but takes no joy in his victory. Even in defeat, a beaten enemy commands respect.
KUNG FU is the movie that attempts to make some sort of sense out of a violent unpredictable life. Caine seems to say that respect for all may make that possible. Perhaps he is right.
Alright, David Carradine does do a solid acting job as the peaceful, philosophical Buddhist monk roaming the American west. (Yup, like that other early 1970's martial-arts hero "Billy Jack", Carradine's "Caine" preaches "peace" & "brotherhood", until he's harrassed by "rednecks", then he tosses out all of that philosophy & kicks...! This show isn't really a martial-arts showcase. It's a hippie's wish-dream!) The surrogate father/son relationship between Carradine & Keye Luke as the blind master "Po" is solid, & let's face it, the bad guys racial slurs of "Chinaman" & "slanty-man" are delightfully repulsive! (I'm an Asian-american, & I enjoy watching Carradine, who's really a white actor in "yellow-face", kick the stuffings out of the bad-guys after they insult him!) And this tv pilot does have solid social commentary, with the background of the Chinese-american railroad workers as symbolic of American racial-exploitation.
Okay, so what's off about this show? Actually, you can't harp on the lack of martial-arts flash in the fight-scenes, since Hong-Kong movies made about this time (the Shaw Brother's "Duel of The Iron Fist", "Street-Gangs of Hong-Kong", "Seven Blows of The Dragon", etc.) also have sloppy fight scenes! You might harp on the practice of casting a white actor in a Chinese role, but then prior to the 1980's, most well meaning films with an Asian as a central character usually were cast with white actors. (Remember "Dragon Seed?" It was a pro-China World War Two propaganda film, with the Chinese, who were our allies against Japan, as the heroes. Katherine Hepburn was the heroine! Yet, you certainly can't call that movie "anti-Chinese.") I don't even think you can harp on passing up Bruce Lee for the lead role, because the central character has to have an inner-peace to him, & Bruce, well....watch "Fist of Fury/Chinese Connection" to understand why I don't think his personality would fit the role (though physically, because of his expertise in martial-arts, he would have been great...in the fight scenes.) You certainly can't fault the writing & acting, which we already said was solid.
Nope. It's the "Chinese" history & culture presented here that strains the believability for a learned viewer. For one thing, Chinese martial-artists (& Chinese Buddhist monks for that matter) DON'T go around barefoot! (They wear shoes! It's the Japanese & Okinawans who don't wear shoes during practice!) The look of the Shaolin robes are off & the bald monks are lacking in incense burnings on the tops of their heads. (They look like dots when you see them.) Not only that, but going by strict Chinese history of the 19th Century, I don't think "the emperor" would have been able to send anyone after "Caine." He (or actually the Empress Dowager) would have been too busy fending off the Taiping Rebels, the British, the French, & the various secret societies that were tearing up China at that time! (Of course, if you go by strict Chinese historical events, "Caine" wouldn't have had to leave China! He, like various other real-life monks, could have joined up with the various rebel secret societies that were plaguing the Manchu government at that time & besides, China is huge! If David Jansenn's "Doctor Kimble" from "The Fugitive" tv show didn't have to leave America after being accused of killing his wife, why should "Caine" have to leave a huge, easily to disappear in country like China?)
However, when I watch "Kung-Fu", I'm not convinced that those are real Shaolin monks or that that was China! It's like watching a medieval knight with a six-shooter!
Rent this video if you can, but only buy it if you can't rent it!
A great scene appears near the beginning wherein Caine walks into a saloon after walking (!!) across a desert to get some water. Naturally some redneck dork wants to start a fight with him 'cause he's one of them "slant-eyes." Three times the guy attempts to attack Caine and three times Caine swiftly and decisively repels the attacks. The guy wisely decides not to attack again as Caine finishes his water and humbly walks out of the saloon leaving the saloon patrons in astonishment.
There's more martial arts action toward the end, but, it should be noted, this is by no means a standard martial arts flick. The movie teaches humility and respect for elders & all fellow human beings.
Despite the fact that they have very little dialogue, Caine develops a close father/son relationship with blind Master Po.
Some scenes have such a reverent and touching quality to them that they actually brought tears to my eyes .
In Brian Garfield's "Western Films" guide he criticized this film as "Juvenile tripe." With all due respect for the brilliant Mr. Garfield, this film is neither juvenile or tripe! As far as Westerns go, it's quite mature and original. Good Eastern-style music too.