'Wu Assassins' Star on Racist Reviews: "So Much More" Than Martial Arts
Asian-American actress Li Jun Li talks to Inverse about 'Wu Assassin's and her very first role "I feel I’m really right for."
One star of Netflix’s Wu Assassins, Li Jun Li, isn’t letting a few bad opinions of the new martial arts series get her down.
“I wish people would not compare Wu Assassins to other Asian martial arts shows,” Li tells Inverse. “There were comments that our show felt like Panda Express, and I wished that even these comments weren’t made because we’re an Asian-American cast.”
Li Jun Li, who was born in China but grew up in New York City, plays the politically ambitious “Jenny” in the majority Asian cast of Wu Assassins. A modern martial arts fantasy, Wu Assassins takes place in the criminal underbelly of San Francisco’s Chinatown and follows a food truck chef, Kai (Iko Uwais) who inherits a mystical power passed down by ancient warrior monks.
“[Jenny] finds herself battling her own burden of expectations from her parents when they leave the family restaurant for her to run, which has forced her to take her own dreams to the back-burner,” Li says of her character. “It’s taken a toll on her relationships with the other characters in the show.”
While the series takes inspiration from kung fu films and Asian mythology, it also explores the contemporary Asian-American experience. These include drug addictions and xenophobia. A standout scene in Episode 07, set in an Oregon diner, involves a white waitress who makes a passively racist assumption that Kai and his father (Byron Mann) aren’t “from here.”
But because of the stylish, niche vibes of the series, Wu Assassins can be a hard show to “get.” One mixed review of Wu Assassins described it like “Eating Panda Express at a Chipotle.” (For what it’s worth, Panda Express has done some cool outreach into the Asian-American community in recent years.)
Li isn’t letting this bum her out. Trained in dance as a child, which she says helped her pick up fight choreography “faster than the average person,” Li willingly took up martial arts even before Wu Assassins. She knew a role like this one would be available to her someday, and she wanted to be ready.
“I trained just as an actor, because it’s an important tool, not to mention an actor of Asian descent,” she says. “It’s going to come across my career at some point. I’m not on the same level of my costars, but I’ve cross trained with Muay Thai, boxing, a little bit of MMA.”
The preparation paid off. As one of the last actors to be cast, Li “was flown out two days after” she signed and went right into wardrobe and fight rehearsal. “Right after my fitting I met the stunt coordinators and they taught me the fight right away. Two days after, we filmed it.”
While Li had recurring roles in TV dramas like Damages, Chicago P.D., Quantico, Blindspot, and Season 2 of The Exorcist, Li describes Wu Assassins as something resonant for her personally.
“It’s been tough because minorities are often used to fill roles that are not true to who we really are,” she says. “Most of the roles in my career have been, Best friend, open ethnicity. This the first role I feel I’m really right for. Someone that looks like me, that speaks like me. From the surface we’re a martial arts show, but there’s so much more that I’ve seen a lot of tweets and comments [from] Asian-Americans [who] can relate. I think that’s what’s groundbreaking about this. It’s not just triad gangsters.”
It’s been only in the last few years where the mainstream has recognized the lack of diverse representation behind and in front of the cameras. Alongside Wu Assassins, shows like Kim’s Convenience, Fresh Off the Boat, Warrior, and Season 2 of the AMC horror anthology The Terror have explored the numerous facets of the Asian diaspora.
There are also a slew of films, including Columbus (2017), Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Burning (2018), and The Farewell (2019) that have won acclaim for its diverse portrayals of existing as Asian.
And if that isn’t enough, Marvel will get in on the action with its first Asian superhero film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which hits theaters in 2021.
Wu Assassins, Li says, is just one show in “the movement.”
“I really think the movement has been going in the right direction. I love that there’s a wave of attention, but I don’t want this to be a trend. With any trend, it will be over. I want it [to be] the norm.” Perhaps one day, another show like Wu Assassins won’t be described like being at Panda Express.
“I don’t even eat at Panda Express,” says Li.
Wu Assassins is streaming now on Netflix.