Kicks. Punches. Swords. A whole lotta blood. A who’s who crew of martial artists and choreographers, and, at last, an Asian lead for a modern TV drama. It’s Into the Badlands, and hopefully it kickstarts a new chapter in genre television.
Arguably, the last popular example of a martial arts TV show in the US was Kung Fu, which ended its run a whopping 40 years ago. AMC hopes to change that. The cable channel that brought us Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad held a cast and crew panel at New York Comic Con on Saturday for the upcoming Into the Badlands. They teased a scene from the pilot that showed The Village’s Emily Beecham as a blade-brandishing killer with acrobatic death moves. It was gory as shit. Like, Tarantino-grade.
The fight sequence was lightning-fast and unapologetically bloody, climaxing in a Street Fighter-like combo move that used double swords to make mincemeat of one foe, streams of blood squirting everywhere like water out of a leak-dotted balloon. There was also an axe-to-the-forehead that ended with a satisfying squish. Not gonna lie... it’s not for everybody. It was as over-the-top as a gory hack-and-slash game. (I loved it, but others won’t.)
Emily Beecham as The Widow. Photo: James Dimmock/AMC
And yet? Beecham’s actual movements were mesmerizingly beautiful and elaborate. Her assault was packed full of complex content whose choreography might enchant viewers who otherwise find fighting movies unpalatable.
Stephen Fung, the show’s fight director who is also a famous actor and filmmaker in Asia, said that was the goal. He wanted to bring Hong Kong-style martial arts action to Into the Badlands.
“It’s not just perceived as fist-fighting—it’s more like a dance. We choreographed it like a dance. Each move is very specific,” Fung said. The martial arts used in the show borrow from an array of styles, kind of like Bruce Lee’s did.
“We wanted to marry that authentic Hong Kong [martial arts] style with an American drama, and we couldn’t have done it without these two gentlemen here,” said co-creator Al Gough, referring to Fung, as well as star, executive producer, and veteran actor Daniel Wu. Both are well-known in Hong Kong and China.
The cast of Into the Badlands, many of whom were new to martial arts, worked their asses off in a training camp that Fung led. He employed the same martial arts training system used by Jackie Chan and Jet Li for the boot camp, which also utilized the expertise of Huan-Chiu Ku, renowned martial arts choreographer who’s worked on Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
You’ll notice that there are no guns in this universe. The setting for Into the Badlands takes Hong Kong-influenced martial arts and plops them in lush wetlands and plantation-filled fields in the distant future. (The show is filmed in New Orleans.) It’s set 500 years from now, and it definitely blends visual cues from both Asia and America in a novel way. Meanwhile, everything’s run by barons who outlawed firearms a century prior, in order to prevent an uprising.
I’m a little nervous, since this show is yet another series set in a dystopian future. But while the fighting is borrowed from Chinese and Hong Kong martial arts cinema, the creators say the world’s social structure mimics feudal Japan, which is interesting: There are barons (like the shogunate) who control land and vital resources, and also manage fighting forces called clippers (samurai) amid a society of nomads (ronin). The creators said Kurosawa movies and medieval Japanese history were key influences.
Daniel Wu as Sunny. Photo: James Minchin III/AMC
As for Wu, he has an extensive martial arts background (shaolin kung fu, wushu, muay thai) and plays main character Sunny, the top baron’s top clipper, who’s killed 400 people. One day, he rescues a young boy called M.K. (Aramis Knight, Ender’s Game) who apparently holds secrets to Sunny’s past, which prompts a journey that the Widow (badass killer Emily Beecham) regularly disrupts.
“It brings that big screen level of action that we’re used to in Hong Kong to the American small screen,” Wu said, and mentions there should be two big fight scenes per episode. He promised the fighting gets crazier as the season rolls on, and that each fight reveals something about the character.
All the characters are presented as morally ambiguous. The Widow, for example, is an apparent mentor to an army of young female warriors-in-training she calls “her butterflies.” Is it ethical to teach kids how to be lethal death machines? Maybe, maybe not. I mean, this universe seems pretty messed up. Only the strong survive.
“The only thing that really matters in this world is strength and weakness. Race, sex, none of it matters,” Gough says. “Martial arts is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.”
Aramis Knight as M.K. Photo: James Minchin III/AMC
I also want to include: ‘Bout ‘effing time, a drama on TV that has an Asian star. We’ve finally been seeing more Asians in starring roles on the comedy side of things, with Fresh off the Boat, which premiered earlier this year, and the new Dr. Ken, which stars Ken Jeong. And of course there’s Steven Yeun, who plays a key role in The Walking Dead’s action ensemble.
When asked at the panel what he thought about being one of the few Asian leads (let alone Asian male leads) in American TV history, Wu said: “When have we seen an Asian-American lead in a show? Almost never. AMC was adamant that the lead is an Asian. For me, as an Asian-American kid growing up, I looked to people like Jet Li and Bruce Lee, because I couldn’t find people like me on the big screen. And now, 40 years later, to be able to be that person, that’s awesome.”
The show premieres on AMC November 15, and I’ll be recapping all of season one’s six gruesome, katana-slicing episodes right here on io9.
Top image: Alexia Ioannides as Tilda. Photo: Patti Perret/AMC
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter.