No American-made TV show — whether it’s produced by Netflix, the networks, cable or the premium channels — has come close to capturing the essence of Hong Kong cinema’s frenetic-paced, over-the-top, highly stylized martial arts action. Until now.
I am, of course, raving about the outrageous and audacious martial arts action served up by the hit AMC series Into the Badlands. More than 8.2 million people tuned in for its premiere in November 2015, making it the top-rated new fall series on either cable or broadcast television. It was also the third-largest audience for the launch of a cable series.
I interviewed Badlands star Daniel Wu a wee while ago for the cover story of the February/March 2016 issue of Black Belt. He discussed in depth his martial arts pedigree and philosophy, as well as how he got into filmmaking and why he wanted to do the series.
Don’t worry! This blog won’t give you deja vu if you’ve already read that article. All I’ll say is that Wu, a Chinese-American, is a legitimate martial artist who’s famous in Asia for his non-martial arts roles. His latest film, a doctor-and-patient-who’s-going-to-die tear-jerker called Go Away Mr. Tumor, is China’s 2015 Academy Award contender for Best Foreign Language Film.
Inasmuch as there’s been some decent martial arts action in series like Netflix’s Marco Polo and Daredevil, several fair stabs with ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a few good seasons of the CW’s Arrow, none has gone beyond the call of duty the way Badlands has.
Badlands is being labeled a martial arts drama, akin to Chinese television’s lien xu zhu, or “kung fu soap operas.” It just so happens that this is the genre in which I honed my choreography skills while attending National Taiwan University circa 1979-81 as a graduate student. (Yes, I fake-fought my way through college.)
Because I’ve seen so much in this wonderful genre, I knew the martial arts world would love Badlands as soon as I watched the opening episode’s first fight. In it, Sunny (Daniel Wu) takes on a band of Mad Max-ian, apocalyptic ruffians using a combative tai chi skill that’s never been seen on American television. The technique was first featured in Hong Kong cinema by Donnie Yen in his debut film Drunken Tai Chi (1984). Yuen Woo-ping choreographed the scene, in which Donnie Yen kills a crazed villain named Iron-Steel, played by Yuen’s brother Sunny Yuen.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the fight choreographer for Badlands is one of Yuen Woo-ping’s disciples, a man named Dee Dee Ku. He choreographed Donnie Yen’s fights in Iron Monkey (1993) and Jet Li’s action in Tai-Chi Master (1993), both of which were directed by Yuen Woo-ping. It’s an interesting yet convoluted tie-in.
Filmed in Louisiana, Badlands takes place 500 years into America’s future, during a time when a feudal society known as the Badlands is run by seven barons. Each baron controls a vital resource and owns a private army of enforcers called “clippers.” Sunny is the head clipper for the most powerful baron. No wonder all Daniel Wu’s fights end up being close shaves!
I’m not joking. I’m referring to the rain-drenched sword showdowns, slice-and-dice mayhem, blood-squirting gore and broken-bone bashing that viewers get in every episode. “We had six days to do each fight, compared to two weeks in typical Hong Kong films,” Wu told me. “When we got into it, we were like, Now we know why no one else is doing this — because it’s so hard!”
Unlike his Hollywood counterparts, Badlands executive producer/action-unit director Stephen Fung, who directed Tai Chi Zero (2012), doesn’t have to use the “earthquake cam” effect or extreme close-ups to hide the fighting ineptitude of the star. That’s because Wu is a skilled martial artist!
Instead, Fung uses wide angles so you can see that, in this case, it’s actually Daniel Wu who’s fighting 10 opponents in one scene. Furthermore, Fung ensures the stunts are filmed so you can tell that Wu (and a few other talented Badlands actors) really have been knocked backward by a strike and really have crashed into a wall.
It’s rare to see a fresh Asian-American face burst onto the American small screen. It’s ever more rare to see someone do it by busting the Asian-American stereotypes that the major networks seem to be perpetuating. Daniel Wu is doing both. Yet there’s an ironic conundrum attached to his portrayal of Sunny.
“He’s Asian but not an Asian character,” Daniel Wu said. “There’s nothing Asian about him — Sunny could have been black or white. So on the cultural side, it wasn’t the point for him to be from Asia or have a Chinese accent. He’s born and raised in America, like me, so you won’t see any Asian-ness. But then it’s tricky because one might argue that an Asian doing martial arts is a stereotype.”
The way Daniel Wu manages the challenges associated with Into the Badlands seems to be resonating with audiences. It’s been announced that the series likely will be picked up for a second season. If you’re wondering where Wu might take Sunny’s character in Season 2, read the story in the February/March 2016 Black Belt.