This show is amazing and some other network needs to pick it up.
Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) is a Chinese-American martial artist who arrives in San Francisco searching for his sister Xiaojing (Dianne Doan). He quickly runs afoul of local authorities and gains the attention of local black marketer Wang Chao (Hoon Lee) who introduces him to Father Jun (Perry Yung), head of the Hop Wei Tong (gang), and his bastard son Young Jun (Jason Tobin). Ah Sahm saves Young Jun from being abducted and the pair become friends. Ah Sahm also becomes involved with Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng), a local Madame. However, Ah Sahm’s arrival comes at a time in which the violence between the Tongs, as well as the violence between the Irish gangs and the Chinese all are on the rise. As a result, Mayor Blake (Christian McKay) orders the creation of a Chinatown police squad under Big Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) and his new officer Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones). This comes from the machinations of the deputy mayor, Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood), and against the wishes of Blake’s wife, Penelope (Joanna Vanderham). There’s gonna be a lot of fighting in the future.
So, before his death, Bruce Lee pitched a series to Warner Bros. Television called Ah Saham about a martial artist in the Old West, but the network passed… only to quickly create Kung Fu starring David Carradine. The network says it’s a coincidence, which is code for “we have lawyers and you don’t.” While I do like Kung Fu and its sequel series, this show is a completely different animal. What Lovecraft Country and Watchmen did in opening people’s eyes to some of the horrible things that America did to black Americans, this show tries to do for some of the things that were done to Chinese immigrants in California, including the incipience of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only law ever implemented specifically to prevent all members of an ethnic group from immigrating to the US (so far). It’s a hell of a demonstration, since many of the more fleshed-out and likable characters are also some of the most mistreated by this society.
I will also give the show credit for pointing out that the Irish-Chinese labor wars really just served to make the wealthy land and labor barons even wealthier. Each group kept undercutting the other and directing their violence towards their fellow laborers, while the people who are encouraging the fighting reap the benefits of the cheap labor. The show not only demonstrates this on multiple levels, but outright states it multiple times just to make sure the audience understands it.
The action sequences in the show are fantastic. They occur reliably, but not so often that they become trite. Notably, there’s a tribute to Enter the Dragon in the second season and it’s beautiful. Andrew Koji, while he does not appear to have studied Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, was a competitive martial artist in Shaolin kung fu and taekwondo and has been doing his own stunts and fight choreography for many years. He knows how to sell a fight scene as well as almost any actor I’ve seen in quite a while. When the moment calls for it, he can also deliver a solid emotional performance, though his character mostly maintains a “silent badass” vibe. He works perfectly for this role.
The acting in general is excellent. The actors are all given a lot of solid material to work with and I cannot think of a single performance that I thought was inferior. I particularly thought that Olivia Cheng was great as the historical character Ah Toy and that Perry Tobin was great as the ambitious and kind of easily-swayed Young Jun. I also like how the show switches between subtitles and English depending on whether there are non-Mandarin speakers in the area. Sometimes it even uses the switch to great comic effect.
Overall, this was a fantastic show. Unfortunately, Cinemax has stopped making original content, so this show is now in limbo. I’m hoping that HBO Max or Netflix picks up the baton.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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