Miniseries started flourishing in the 1950s. Now Netflix is breathing new life into the genre.
I’m not a fan of spoilers. But I’ll reveal that this series is 10 episodes. The length of a miniseries generally varies from five to fifteen episodes, 25 to 45 minutes in length. Producers have the flexibility to develop plot and character, while the limited number of episodes means the story must be tight and the drama should keep us glued to our couch.
Wu Assassins is like a long movie. The writers kindly don’t leave you sitting on cliff-hangers – a tactic that keeps square-eyed people unable to switch-off. Rather, Wu Assassins satisfies with bone-breaking fight scenes that will have you spilling popcorn.
First you are drawn into the San Francisco underworld contested by Triad and Russian syndicates. Then we are introduced to the legend of the Wu Assassins, a medieval order devoted to eradicating evil (especially Russians).
Iko Uwais is Kai Jin, chef and chosen one. Uwais is Indonesian of half-Chinese/half-Indonesian descent. Not to be down on Iko, who does a good job, but I’m intrigued why they couldn’t find a Chinese actor, say someone from the Singaporean/Malaysian scene, Hong Kong, mainland China or even the US itself. After all, San Francisco is the world’s oldest Chinatown in the West (for curious people, Melbourne is the second. For parochial people, Sydney’s is the best).
Could it be that producers fear the audience will not relate to a full-blood Chinese? Are they trying to broaden the audience, feeling that a main character with semi-Western features will be more relatable? The same reasoning seems to have been applied when casting Henry Golding in Crazy Rich Asians.
But this is not Uwais’ fault. He needs to earn a crust. And, I’ve since been informed by an Australian friend of Indonesian-Chinese descent that the Chinese community in Indonesia is not insignificant, so the Triad influence likely has its tentacles throughout South-East Asia.
Uwais’s breakthrough role was in memorable Indonesian thriller The Raid, which I watched on a flight from Bangkok to Sydney. In Wu Assassins, Uwais is chef, everyman, and Chinese martial arts superhero. His mysterious origins set him on a collision course with his adoptive father, Triad boss Uncle Six (Byron Mann, who incidentally was born in Hong Kong and is also of mixed-race parentage).
Kai Jin steers well clear of his father’s business. He wants nothing to do with the Triad. But the Wu powers see him as a pure soul capable of smacking evil in the nether regions and putting a stop to Russian interference in the drug trade.
Russians do have a presence in the San Francisco underworld, but tend to keep their activity under wraps. Cartel groups, Yakuza and the Mafia also operate in the Bay area and could also have filled the role of rival gang. Incidentally in The Wire, the gang operating out of Baltimore’s docklands appears to be run by a global syndicate managed by Greeks. So we don’t need Russians as the baddies all the time.
Frank Fletcher (Cranston Johnston), Captain of the San Francisco PD, doesn’t care where the criminals are from. He would like to see all gangs take each other out with as minimal police intervention as possible. Fletcher’s subordinate, Christine Gavin (Katheryn Winnick), believes she can go undercover and hasten their demise. Fletcher believes this is too dangerous but reluctantly agrees.
Gavin will inevitably cross paths with our hero Kai Jin, recipient of the Wu Xing (五行) which grants access to ancient powers and is embodied in the form of an engraved shard which possesses its host, not unlike the iron shards in The Untamed.
So where does Wu Assassins lose marks? It has great camerawork and excellent music. But the writers try to be a little too clever. I would have preferred the Wu Order to originate in China rather than to have connections with medieval Scotland. This is not a hard ask with China’s long Taoist fantasy tradition. It is probable the producers once again had Western audiences in mind when creating the backstory.
I also wasn’t convinced with the casting of Celia Au as Ying Ying, Kai’s spirit guide and first of the Wu Assassins. I’m quite to happy have a woman as the protagonist’s spiritual master. This works well in Once Upon a Time in Lingjian Mountain. But I can’t accept a master looking substantially younger than their pupil, even if she is an older soul. Maybe this is my limitation!
Li Jun Li as Jenny Wah and Lawrence Kao as Tommy Wah are an excellent sister/brother combo. Jenny is younger and more responsible, managing her Chinatown restaurant and doing her best to avoid Triad business – hard considering she’s been funded by them before. Her brother is a junior member battling a heroin addiction. Will he be more loyal to his addiction and the Triad, or to his sister?
Final verdict: 7.5
Worth watching, with its creative fight scenes and portrayal of San Francisco Triad culture, served with a dollop of magic. Loses its way in parts, with the Scottish backstory not fitting. And yes, evil does get slapped in the nether regions, but it’s not Uwais who delivers the kick.