10 episodes (approx. 45 mins each)
Creator: Jonathan Troppe
Cast: Andrew Koji, Olivia Cheng, Jason Tobin, Dianne Doan, Joe Taslim, Kieran Bew, Joanna Vanderham, Hoon Lee
Based on an old pitch by Bruce Lee, it’s set in 1870s San Fransisco’s Chinatown during the Tong Wars. Chinese immigrants are hated by the Caucasian majority including the police and by the Irish who are unemployed due to the cheaper wages given to Chinese workers. The main character, Ah Sahm, comes to this city, literally fresh off the boat, to find someone but ends up being entangled in the Chinese triads.
This is an entertaining show with some sharply written characters. Each with their own views and agenda with no shortage of conflict. Ally or enemy, it can change depending on the day. The first four episodes do a good job of introducing all the major characters. Episode 5 is like a filler or break episode as it is pretty self contained but then for the rest of the episodes it continues the main story.
Early on there is definitely a fair amount behavior and dialogue portraying the racism faced by Chinese. Some characters state very obvious things about the oppression of Chinese, which may feel overly preachy with too much of a sledge hammer approach. But given the time period, it’s not really excessive at all. People were very racist and weren’t shy to yell it out or act out on it deliberately or unknowingly.
I’m not a fan of the rather colloquial language used by pretty much all the Chinese characters (elder or young) when speaking English to each other. To avoid using subtitles too much, when Chinese characters are talking to each other in Cantonese, the actors actually talk in perfect English and use English expressions. If there is a non-Chinese character in the same scene, the Chinese character actors will actually talk in Cantonese and in accented English (sometimes broken depending on their capability) to the non-Chinese characters. This is a good compromise but I think improvement can be made with the English spoken by the Chinese characters to each other. I find sometimes the younger characters actually don’t speak and act with as much respect as would be expected towards elders. Adjustments in the choices of English words and intonation would help in making the hierarchy more obvious between characters.
Ah Sahm’s character probably speaks English too well given his background even with an American grandfather. As for Cantonese, you can tell that some of the actors are not native speakers as the rare times you do hear them speak it, their lines sound overly rehearsed. This isn’t surprising given the pan-Asian cast, which includes actors with Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese ethnicity whom were born and/or grew in different countries like Canada, USA, UK and Indonesia. For me, I’m glad they have such a diverse cast and the nitpick about level of speaking is minor. I’d guess only actress Olivia Cheng sounds like she can speak Cantonese fluently.
The characters are very well defined, with different sides to them. Characters that may appear like stereotypes at first, like the madam of the brothel, Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) or the racist Irish cop Bill (Kieran Bew) are gradually revealed to be more fully dimensional characters as other aspects of their lives are revealed. Their respective actor do a fine job or portraying the different sides. Dianne Doan as a triad leader’s mistress with greater ambitions, is maybe a bit less believable because of her really youngish voice but her performance is not bad overall as she has to balance conflicting interests. Hoon Lee as the black market weapons dealer, a sort of neutral party between the triads is both entertaining and a bit sinister. There’s a lot of politics here and it’s really interesting seeing how alliances change over the series. The actors who portray the Caucasian roles are very good with varied backgrounds. However, as a consequence, they do kind of overshadow Andrew Koji in the lead roll of Ah Sahm.
Ah Sahm is more or less a pretty predictable character who goes through a predictable character arc during the season. His goal is to find someone. He’s ignorant of the ways of Chinatown so he just does things without really thinking. Despite looking half asleep a lot of the time, he does have a bit of a cocky streak with fighting skills to back it up. He’s definitely very believable when he’s down in the dumps and the moments of cockiness show a bit of charisma. But overall there’s just something that’s missing from his screen presence, which feels a bit too subdued when he’s not fighting. I think maybe it’s the eyes, which maybe aren’t expressive enough at times. However, when he’s fighting, he’s excellent. He has a really great voice too. Overall, I think he does fine in the lead role but I think some small adjustments could lead to an improved performance.
The fights in this series are exciting and hard hitting. There isn’t a lot of cutting and it’s usually easy to follow the fight with dangerous looking swings with hatchets and hammers. Whether it’s one on one fights or group fights, it’s well staged and choreographed. The fight between Koji and Taslim is a standout with a nice contrast of different styles. The story does a good job of building up rivals and their great fighting capabilities so that when Ah Sahm has to face them, they feel like genuine threats.
There is female nudity and one full frontal scene right in the first episode. Bare butts of both genders are also exposed. Some of it seems a bit gratuitous, mainly the one I just mentioned from the first episode but overall the number of scenes isn’t excessive.
Season 1 set up some characters in different and interesting positions. I’m happy to hear that Season 2 was ordered so that we can continue to explore the characters and setting further. I recommend this series.