'Into the Badlands,' 'Kung-Fu,' and the Asian Journey to the West

AMC's newest apocalyptic fantasy is a fantasy fulfillment over a hundred years in the making.

AMC Networks

Into the Badlands will roundhouse kick its place to primetime TV on November 15 when it premieres on AMC. To stand out from zombies and dragons, the show’s modus operandi is taking geographically separate, thematically similar genres — the martial arts and western — and mashing them like freight trains on a collision course. The yin-yang polarities of the two genres is informed by America’s history of Chinese immigration, whose journey to the west laid down the railroad tracks for Into the Badlands and provided a revisionist fantasy fulfillment.

The dystopian future of Into the Badlands evokes the bygone antebellum, like Gone with the Wind except the soldiers have katanas. Sprawling plantations tended by slaves (of all ethnicities, but still, slaves) and mansions with architecture found below the Mason-Dixon line serve as backdrop for the AMC series. But Sunny, the hero of Into the Badlands, is looking west atop the walls that border his world. Played by famed Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu, Sunny wishes for freedom and a better life where the ruthless Barons cannot reach.

Hoping for a better life “out there” was the same dream held by the first Chinese immigrants who arrived on American shores in the 1850s. With the majority of them men — cultural and practical reasons kept Chinese women from emigrating — they worked as cheap laborers in mining, garments, and building the Central Pacific Railroad. Their low wages pegged them as responsible for dried-up employment and a poor economy, leading to discrimination against the “yellow peril.” The Rock Springs massacre, a violent Wyoming riot between Chinese and white immigrant workers that left an accounted 28 Chinese dead.

An old 19th century political cartoon of the "yellow peril."

Considered effeminate, weak, and sexual deviants, the Chinese Exclusion Act went into effect in 1882 and was the first federal law to restrict immigration of an entire people. While the law was repealed in 1943, the attitudes of this era linger as ghosts in social stigmas that have stayed with Asian men today.

But the 20th century marched on and the West Coast prospered when the motion picture industry planted in California. Unlike in New York where bad weather made shooting with early cameras hard and small spaces restricted stories, California had abundant sun and vast, scenic deserts. Filmmakers took advantage with action escapism and romanticism like Red River, Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, High Noon, and 3:10 to Yuma. The western dominated the pop culture landscape, and the likes of John Wayne have been immortalized as the western grew to symbolize America’s spirit of the century.

As Michael Agresta writes in The Atlantic:

Westerns have earned their place at the heart of the national culture and American iconography … because they’ve provided a reliable vehicle for filmmakers to explore thorny issues of American history and character. In the enduring examples of the genre, the real threat to the homestead, we learn, is an economic system that is being rigged for the wealthy, or the search for the bad guy becomes a search for meaning in a culture of violent retribution, or the treasure of the Sierra Madre is a diabolical mirage of the American dream.
Through the past century of Western movies, we can trace America’s self-image as it evolved from a rough-and-tumble but morally confident outsider in world affairs to an all-powerful sheriff with a guilty conscience. After World War I and leading into World War II, Hollywood specialized in tales of heroes taking the good fight to savage enemies and saving defenseless settlements in the process. In the Great Depression especially, as capitalism and American exceptionalism came under question, the cowboy hero was often mistaken for a criminal and forced to prove his own worthiness—which he inevitably did.

'The Magnificent Seven,' directed by John Sturges, a western remake of Akira Kurosawa's 'The Seven Samurai.'

Mubi, MGM

On the other side of the world, Hong Kong operated under British rule and underwent rapid industrialization that rose the standard of living. As it became an economic power, so did their movie industry. Kung-fu epics, not unlike America’s cowboy adventures, were period blockbusters of equal romanticism and adventure. The Shaw Brothers Studio produced some of the best of the age, like The One-Armed Swordsman, Dragon Inn, Come Drink With Me, Golden Swallow, and Temple of the Red Lotus with stars like Jimmy Wang Yu and Cheng Pei-pei driving ticket sales. Bruce Lee, an American-born Chinese martial artist, starred in 1971’s The Big Boss and became one of the most iconic action stars of all time.

Though separated by the Pacific, these movies were imported to the U.S. and gained a rabid following of cinema enthusiasts and action junkies who grew up on westerns.

And the two genres could not be more geometrically perfect. Both forms show sweeping adventures with a hero, who may have suffered a tragedy but possesses a sense of altruism and unmatched skill, that takes it upon themselves to stop the evil sheriff or defeat the master rival in a climactic showdown. Whether it’s shooting revolver pistols or revolving spin-kicks, the journeys of both films are much alike.

'Fist of Legend,' directed by Gordon Chan.

The Weinstein Company

While the westerns dominated throughout the mid-20th century, the U.S. abolished immigration quotas with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. One result among many: Manhattan’s Chinatown boomed and expanded in the Lower East Side where a young Ed Spielman explored the imported culture. A former page at ABC, Spielman studied Mandarin in college and, against odds, studied kung-fu when the art was taught exclusively to families and very much not to white dudes. Spielman wrote a 40+ page treatment for a western TV show with a half-Chinese hero, Kung-Fu, which was picked up by ABC and aired in 1972. It became a primetime phenomenon that managed a few Emmy wins.

The show opens on a desert plain against a rising sun. Triumphant music of some exotic, pseudo-eastern origin reaches a crescendo. The picture fades to a wanderer kicking up sand, his face obscured by shadow. He’s been walking for days, maybe weeks. He is Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine and the star of Kung-Fu. A half-Chinese, half-American orphan raised in a Shaolin monastery, Kwai journeys to find his brother in the Old West but is compelled to intervene when he sees injustice, which is in no short supply.

It’s not difficult to read Kung-Fu as semi-autobiographical. Kwai, a foreigner navigating an alien world, isn’t unlike Spielman getting lost on Canal or Elizabeth Street. The immigrant experience is embroidered in the fabric of America, and Kung-Fu resonated with the new multiracial audience who were familiar with westerns or martial arts and discovered either at once.

Forty years later, the show’s spirit has been reincarnated through Into the Badlands.

With an unambiguously Asian male as its cowboy, Into the Badlands is the first show of its kind since Kung-Fu. A 21st century fantasy fulfillment, it will channel over a hundred years of anxieties and frustrations of Chinese and Asian-Americans into one avatar rocking two katana swords. At Comic-Con, Wu expressed he doesn’t wish to carry “the baggage of all of Asia America” by himself. Fortunately, he won’t be alone.

Into the Badlands premieres November 15 on AMC.