Cinemax’s ‘Warrior’ Season 1, Episode 1: ‘The Itchy Onion’

Cinemax bills “Warrior” as “what Bruce Lee would have wanted” and in the credits notes this is “based on the writings” of San Francisco’s own native-born legend. Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, his only surviving child, is on board this production as a producer so that’s a plus, but do we really know what Bruce Lee would have wanted besides an ethnic East Asian playing a lead role? With “Warrior,” our lead is happa, but not a US citizen: Andrew Koji is Japanese and British.

The Bruce Lee/David Carradine Conundrum

Born in California in 1940 but raised in Hong Kong, Lee died of a cerebral edema in Hong Kong in 1973 when he was just 32. Although he had two children with his wife Linda Emery, his eldest child, Brandon, died in 1993 during the filming of the cult class “The Crow.”   While there is some dispute about whether Warner Bros. stole the idea of what became the TV series “Kung Fu” from Bruce Lee, the casting problem of a Eurasian played by someone was primarily Irish and with no Asian in him.

The star of “Kung Fu,” David Carradine, lived to be 72 and road on lingering cultural clout of Kwai Chang Caine long after the series ended (1972-1975) for TV movies and even got to take on four roles meant for Bruce Lee (the 1978 “Circle of Iron”). “Kung Fu” was rebooted as “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues” (1993-1997) and then was there was “Kill Bill.” One wonders how “Kung Fu” will fair in today’s climate on both the issues of race and morality–Carradine died in a Bangkok hotel room of autoerotic asphyxiation. “Kung Fu” was PG with minimal gore and was there any sexual innuendo at all?

“Warrior” isn’t “Kung Fu” chaste or clean. “Warrior” doesn’t have any problem with sexual innuendo or full frontal female nudity and f-bombs litter the script like the protest placards on a San Francisco sidewalk after a protest.

Historical Setting

In 1878, the American Civil War (1861-1865) was over a decade in the past and that’s a war in which Chinese and Filipinos fought. Prior to the American Civil War, the famous Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese twins of Chinese ancestry, had settled in North Carolina 21 children between them.  In 1854, the California Supreme Court case of People v. Hall decided that Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans couldn’t testify against whites.  Japanese men rescued by American ships in 1841 and 1850 would later going Commodore Perry when he opened up Japan in 1852.

In 1862, California imposed a monthly tax of $2.50 on every Chinese man.  An inflation calculator estimates that would be the equivalent of $62.92 in 2019. That would be $755.04 per annum.

In 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad Co. recruited Chinese laborers to lay the railroad tracks from Utah to California which led to the saying “verily the road was built with Chinaman’s bones.”

In 1869, the 14th Amendment was passed and would eventually give full citizenship to every person born in the US as tested by the US Supreme Court case of United Staes v. Wong Kim Ark (1898).

An Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney (1947-1907) began speaking at a gathering area near the San Francisco city hall called “The Sandlot.” While at first he told people to be “thrifty and industrious like the Chinese,” by 1877 he was part of the anti-Chinese movement that would help pass anti-Chinese laws and his slogan was: “The Chinese must go.” Don’t worry, San Franciscans. Kearney Street was not named after that Kearney, but for the Mexican–American War Army officer Stephen W. Kearny.

In Asian American history, the year 1878 is significant because of 29 April 1878 Ninth Circuit Court decision in California decided that Chinese were ineligible  for naturalization: They could not become citizens.

‘The Itchy Onion’

“Warrior” opens in a darkened enclosure with a close up of a pencil drawing of a woman is in the hands of a young man in a black mandarin-collared jacket. He folds it back up before exiting a ship. The year is 1878 and a Eurasian man, Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), has come to San Francisco with a mission: To find a woman.

Outside, the Chinese immigrants are emptied into an outdoor yard where they will have their papers inspected by immigration officers. On the other side of the fence are anti-Chinese agitators (“Chinks, go home”).

A man with a long luxurious queue and a derby, Wang Chao,  gets the crowd’s attention and explains the situation. These Chinese men owe Lao Ting four months work for paying for their passage. Three Irish immigration goons can’t resist bullying a meek Chinese man, laughing at his smile when they insult him (“Hey, Ching Chong, you smell yourself” and “I asked you a question, slant”) and one man throws his rice balls into the dirt and then look on with disgust as the man bends over the retrieve the now dirt-dusted rice. Ah Sahm tells the man to leave the rice in the dirt, but the man replies he’s hungry.

Ah Sahm antagonizes the three Irish goons who are surprised he can talk “American.” The leader asks, “You think you can take me on?”

Ah Sahm assures him, “That’s the wrong question.”

The man then asks, “What’s the right one?”

After Ah Sahm dispatches the man’s two companions, Ah Sahm replies, “The right question is do you really want to find out.” This display of Chinese martial arts leaves Wang Chao impressed and he quickly turns it to his advantage, selling him to the appropriate tong, the Hop Wei. Learning that Ah Sahm had an American grandfather, he advises him to keep that quiet before introducing him to Father Jun (Perry Yung), the head of the Hop Wei. Ah Sahm teaches him a bit about respect and this lesson is mild compared to the one he’ll get in episode three. .

Father Jun puts him under the tutelage of Young Jun (Jason Tobin) who is his son by a prostitute, or, at least, that’s how Young Jun tells it. Young Jun also claims his father battle the British Navy during the Battle of Shanghai (Opium Wars). After Ah Sahm initiation which involves a Hop Wei insignia branded on his arm, Young Jun introduces Ah Sahm to Ah Toy (Olivia Chung), the brother’s madam. While Young Jun quickly finds a whore to his liking, Ah Sahm is looking for someone in particular. In front of her whores, he asked Ah Toy about the woman in his picture who came to the US two years earlier, but Ah Toy doesn’t know about her.

Ah Sahm’s search brings thugs searching for him. While the Hop Wei roll in three-piece black business suits with a red triangle pocket square and white shirts with Mandarin collars (except for the Hop Wei lieutenant Bolo (Rich Ting) who opts for a black shirt), the Long Zii sport the half-shaved heads and long queues. They pull Young Jun out of his sexual interlude, but finally get the right guy and take Ah Sahm to what looks like a dojo where he fights with the young Long Zii lieutenant (who doesn’t sport the head-shave queue hairdo) Li Young (Joe Taslim) until a woman in red comes down to break down the fight.

As it turns out Ah Sahm was looking for his sister and she was formerly married to a man who beat and raped her. The “stupid farm girl” she had been died in that wedding bed and her marriage somehow saved Ah Sahm’s life. Ah Sahm came to bring her home now that a few people have died, but now as Mai Ling (Dianne Doan)  she is exactly where she belongs. Mai Ling is the much younger wife of the Long Zii leader, Long Zii (Henry Yuk).

Ah Sahm isn’t the only new face in town. A police officer with a southern accent, Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones) stops two White men,  Morgan (Branwell Donaghey) and Davis (Kevin Murphy), from Chinese men in an alley way by smashing their heads in with hammers.

News of this brings Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood) to the house of the newly wed Mayor Samuel Blake (Christian McKay) who has a frosty relationship with his new bride Penelope Blake (Joanna Vanderham). The mayor assures Penelope, “The affairs of state, dear, they don’t concern you,” but she is concerned about the treatment of the Chinese.

The people who do become concerned are the police and a new Chinatown squad is formed with an Irish man, Bill O’Hara as the head (Kieran New). O’Hara isn’t happy but  Police Chief Flannagan (David Butler) assures him that this opportunity is “a straight climb up the ladder without kissing a single arse.” But the Irish are part of the agitators against the Chinese. While asking that one particular opium-addicted officer not be on his new force, O’Hara instead gets Lee. From Savannah, Georgia, Lee notes that the Civil War hasn’t ended for his family–two of his brothers fought at Gettysburg and so did O’Hara.

Another Civil War veteran, Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger), remembers the conscripting of the Irish, saying, “We freed the fucking slaves. “God bless ’em, but they didn’t go back to Africa. They came up North and took our fuckin’ jobs.” Now the Irish needs to save the US again, “because the rich man who’s fucking war we fought won’t pay us a decent wage” and “if that means another fucking civil war than so be it” but in the end, “the Chinese must go.”

Leary happens to hold court in the Irish bar, The Banshee, that O’Hara also frequents and they are more than friendly. Leary is also concerned that Morgan and Davis might be convicted on the basis of the Lee’s testimony. At the time, as the Chinese (like the Black) couldn’t testify against a white man, only a white man can help the prosecution despite at least on Chinese man surviving the attack.

Back at the whorehouse, Ah Sahm asks Wang Chao if he can secure him passage back to China, but his membership in the Hop Wei makes that impossible. Ah Sahm is the itchy onion but Wang Chao compares him to an unpolished gemstone, saying “no gemstone is polished without rubbing and no a man perfected without his trials.”

An unhappy Ah Sahm gets some advice from Ah Toy who didn’t betray him, but says, “You got fucked because you spoke your business in a room full of whores. This is not China; it’s Chinatown.” Then she takes him upstairs to her chambers and offers him, not opium, but her own blend of herbs to smoke and then something even more personal.

Yet there are other secrets that the whores know. The mayor’s wife tempts him with her nude body (full frontal nudity) but shuts the door. He is later found masked and lurking the hallways of the brothel, not looking for just a female whore, but a male one as well.

But there are other people hiding behind metaphorical masks. Mai Ling is told by her husband that “these are dangerous times for all Chinese” and because the Long Zii  are the “ones who broke the agreement” with the other tong, Hop Wei, this might mean war and “we can’t afford to we at war with each other.” Mai Ling doesn’t see it that way and has a secret meeting with Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood) who has set her up in the opium trade.  Buckley tells her “peace won’t serve my purposes or yours.”

Ah Toy also has secrets. She’s an assassin and when Morgan and Davis leave The Banshee, she cuts them down, first beheading one and then disemboweling the other.

“Warrior” has the dark, claustrophobic feel in its sets. The room that Ah Sahm takes is dingy and even the better rooms of the Long Zii and Hong Wei chiefs have a cavernous, mysterious feel. The series uses the Chinese language with English subtitles and then sometimes takes a 360-camera turn to bring us into another world where the Chinese are supposed to be speaking Chinese but are speaking English instead. F-bombs detonate to display the ferocious anger between men and demarcate the gentility of Penelope’s world and the varying degrees of nice society down to the savagery of the battle between men when all civility has been stripped away. While “Kung Fu” and the “Karate Kid” were decidedly G-rated, “Warrior” ventures into soft porn. Despite the dingy setting, the full frontal female nudity and backside male nudity (with strategically block frontal nudity) is displayed with beautifully control soft light

 

 

 

 

 

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