The gears are spinning again for a “Kung Fu” remake. Yes, that Kung Fu, the same television show from the 1970s that rejected Bruce Lee, cast a white actor instead, and infuriated a famous Avatar: The Last Airbender actor…
On October 31st Deadline reported that actor Bill Paxton is in negotiations to direct a remake of the 1970s television series Kung Fu for Legendary Pictures. According to Deadline, the film will be produced by Legendary Entertainment next summer. We don’t know very much about the proposed remake, but it’s rumored that John McLaughlin (Black Swan) will write the script. As far as we are aware, casting has yet to begin and no actors are linked to this project.
Kung Fu was an American television series that ran from 1972 to 1975. According to the Bruce Lee Foundation, Bruce Lee pitched an idea very similar in concept to Kung Fu, about an Eastern monk in the Old West. Unfortunately, although the studio loved the idea, when the studio moved to produce Kung Fu, the lead role was not offered to Bruce Lee, but to a white actor, David Carradine.
n the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen, Japanese American actor Mako Iwamatsu (voice actor of Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender) recalled confronting studio executives about the casting in Kung Fu..
“I recall having a meeting with executives of Warner Bros. about David Carradine portraying a Chinese character in Kung Fu. And I remember this vice president said, ‘If we put a yellow man on the tube, audiences would turn the switch off in less than 5 minutes.’
And I got really red in the face and I said, ‘wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute…’ And I went back to this point of Sessue Hayakawa, you know. But I guess he was too young to remember.” – Mako, The Slanted Screen
Kung Fu is a classic example of “racebending.” As Avatar: The Last Airbender martial arts consultant Sifu Kisu noted during the The Last Airbender casting controversy in 2009: “I mean goodness we all know David Carradine was by far superior in the martial arts compared to Bruce Lee, go figure.”
During the show’s run, Carradine’s character, Kwai Chang Caine, was presented as a half white, half Asian Shaolin monk, even though the actor was not of Asian descent. While Asian actors often appeared in supporting roles, they still faced a glass ceiling. Actress Barbara Hershey also guest starred in an episode of Kung Fu, playing a Chinese woman named Nan Chi.
Bruce Lee popularized the kung fu movie genre in America. Kung Fu took a step further and popularized the “a White person ‘masters’ Asian martial arts’” trope in mainstream American film. (Sound familiar? Iron Fist, 3 Ninjas, The Forbidden Kingdom, Dragonball Evolution, King of Fighters, The Last Samurai etc.) This trope continues to persist—for example, in 2009, white actor David Henrie was cast to play Chinese American martial artist Tommy Zhou in the movie adaptation of The Weapon.
And grasshopper, this isn’t the first time a remake of “Kung Fu” has been shopped around, either. Back in 2006, Legendary Pictures was prepping to shoot the film with Albert and Allen Hughes as directors.
(While this remake never panned out, Legendary Pictures and the Hughes brothers later climbed aboard the Akira remake–the Akira being produced by Warner Bros, the same studio that rejected Bruce Lee for Kung Fu all those years ago–before departing the project several months later. Small world.)
Will Caine in the Kung Fu remake also be played by a white actor? In September 2007, casting calls for “Kung Fu” were released…
“Male, 20-35. A handsome mix of East (Chinese/Asian) meets West (American). A man with the emotional capacity of a young Clint Eastwood. Charismatic and charming, Caine was raised by Shaolin monks after his mother’s murder and became a highly skilled fighter. In addition to being a strong actor with the right look, the actor for this role should be athletic and although not required, some martial arts training, gymnastics or ballet are a plus.” – September 2007 casting call for “Kung Fu” remake…pretty much encapsulating the difficulty Asian American actors have in finding work in Hollywood. For example, while the casting call states “West (American)”, the word “American” is being used as shorthand for “white American,” framing Asian Americans as Eastern and non-American. The casting call also places emphasis on “the right look.” The casting language for the main character, Caine, was later clarified in a December 2007 casting call:
“In the film, Caine is male, 20-30 years old with a Chinese mother and American Father.” – a December 2007 casting call for “Kung Fu”These casting sides are three years old, from a previous attempt at a remake. Who knows what the casting call will look like this time around, in a post-The Last Airbender world. Can a remake of Kung Fu heal the flaws in the show’s past?