'Wu Assassins' Star on Why It's the Most "Important" Show of the Year
At first glance, Netflix’s Wu Assassins looks nothing more than a mindless weekend binge-watch. But there’s more to the series than its hype trailers featuring martial arts, cool cars, and hip-hop. According to series star Lewis Tan, it’s just as edgy as anything else the streaming giant has to offer.
“People have this misconception that even though it’s martial arts, it’s not gonna break stereotypes. Our show is highly controversial,” Tan tells Inverse. “Just because it’s [about] martial arts doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly.”
On August 8, Netflix quietly released the first season of Wu Assassins. Set in modern San Francisco, the show tells the story of Kai (Iko Uwais, The Raid), a food truck chef who inherits an ancient power passed down by warrior monks. When a Chinese Triad seeks to use Kai’s powers to amass influence, Kai must team up with some unlikely allies, including an undercover cop (Katheryn Winnick, Vikings) to save Chinatown.
Alongside Uwais and Tan, who is known for his appearances in Marvel’s Iron Fist, AMC’s Into the Badlands, and as the mutant Shatterstar in 2018’s Deadpool 2, the series stars Byron Mann (Skyscraper), Mark Dacascos (John Wick: Chapter 3), Tzi Ma (The Man in the High Castle, Mulan), and Li Jun Li (The Exorcist).
On the surface, Wu Assassins looks like a B-grade action movie crossed with a PlayStation 2 game. But Lewis Tan, who plays Kai’s best friend, a car thief named Lu Xin, believes Wu Assassins is actually one of the most groundbreaking Netflix shows of the year.
“It’s [about] the underbelly of Chinatown with a fantasy twist, but behind all of it is a story about identity, family, purpose, destiny. It is important,” says Tan. “We make important statements about the Asian-American experience. There’s scenes dedicated to just that. There’s a lot of social commentary that I haven’t yet seen onscreen.”
Tan specifically cites the show’s predominantly Asian cast (a Netflix first, believe it or not) and moments throughout the season to make his case.
“There’s a scene in Episode 7 where Byron Mann breaks down how Asian-Americans helped build America to racists in Oregon,” he says. “There’s the dynamic of what it’s like to be half-Asian in America and what that experience is like.” (Tan himself is half-Chinese and half-British.)
Tan also brings up the character of Tommy Wah, played by Lawrence Kao. In the series, Tommy is a restauranteur and a heroin addict who got hooked on drugs due to the Triads, which Tan says he’s never seen in any mainstream Hollywood production before.
“I’ve never seen Asian people deal with drugs before [in movies]. Everybody thinks we’re teacher’s pets, so that’s how we’ve been portrayed. But there’s a lot to unpack.”
There is a lot to unpack. In 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, found that while Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are less likely to use drugs than other racial groups — Asian adults had a rate of 3.4% versus the national average of 7.9% — they were also less likely to seek and receive treatment when they need it.
The myth of the “model minority,” historically associated with Asian immigrant populations, have “contributed to a dearth of information about treatment-seeking … for AAPIs,” wrote IRETA (Institute for Research, Education and Training in Addictions ) in 2015.
Although Tan, a veteran martial artist, spent months training in new disciplines including the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat for Wu Assassins, Tan says it’s in the raw humanity of the characters that he is most proud of.
“To have a primary Asian and Asian-American cast was cool, because the cast supported each other in a way I haven’t seen before,” says Tan. “They would show up on set even if they weren’t filming. We knew it was bigger than ourselves. We had to represent for our community, not just ourselves.”
The series is created and executive produced by John Wirth (Hell on Wheels) and Tony Krantz (24, Felicity), neither of whom are ethnically Asian. But Tan says this wasn’t an issue.
“John Wirth has been creating TV shows that have helped the community,” he says. “He did Hell on Wheels, which is how the railroad was built and he cast Asian actors. On day one at the table read, he said, ‘Listen, this is not my world. I’m here to take advice and suggestions. Let’s collaborate.’
“Everything we suggested, John Wirth would take. He trusted us. Everybody went into this understanding this is not their culture. We had Asian-American writers and directors, but the producers took our advice. Just because we’re not the same race doesn’t mean we can’t collaborate on art and do it properly.”
Adds Tan, “We’re doing something bigger than us and we want it to be good. That energy, I had never felt before. That was encouraging.”
Wu Assassins is streaming now on Netflix.