Thursday, January 10, 2013

KUNG FU (1972-73)

PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic* (2) *uncanny* (3) *naturalistic,* (4) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*

       A concept as idiosyncratic as ABC-TV’s cult teleseries KUNG FU holds two sources of appeal for a blogger like myself, whose aims are no less idiosyncratic.

One aim of this blog is to take note of the ways in which metaphenomenal narratives construct meaning, using as a basis the “four functions” formulation of Joseph Campbell.  Campbell applied his formula only to myth, but since I’ve argued elsewhere for the contiguity of myth and art, I find Campbell’s categories of meaning—cosmological, metaphysical, sociological, and psychological—to have broad application to the arts.  The teleseries KUNG FU offers a chance to see how these categories appear in an ongoing series, as it’s reasonably strong in all four departments.

A second aim is to show how the tropes of narrative fiction work in a myriad of ways in order to create the tonal quality of “strangeness,” whether in its “marvelous” or “uncanny” forms.  One might call this the “anti-Todorovian” aspect of the blog, since my NUM theory was formulated as a rejection of Torodov’s formulations.  The ABC series offers some interesting applications of the NUM theory.  Some episodes are as purely naturalistic as are most TV westerns, but the hero himself—Kwai Chang Caine, a wandering Shaolin priest in the American West of the 1800s—often evinces uncanny qualities, displaying strength or resources beyond the realm of the naturalistic.  In addition, some episodes confront Caine with equally extraordinary opponents—raising the question as to how the priest’s adventures relate to what I’ve termed “the superhero idiom.” This is not to say, naturally, that Caine could ever satisfy the na├»ve conceptions that define a “superhero,” any more than some of the other figures that I’ve related here to that idiom, such as Tarzan and Zorro.

If the pilot telefilm for the series were all that existed of the concept, Kwai Chang Caine would have no more qualifications for the superhero idiom than do the hundreds of other naturalistic cavaliers spawned by Hong Kong’s booming kung-fu genre of the 1960s and 1970s.  The telefilm begins by showing Caine (David Carradine) in the present, as he seeks employment in the Old West, but the narrative concentrates on the backstory as to how a Shaolin priest chanced to appear in the United States—told through the series’ signature (and most frequently spoofed) device, that of ongoing flashbacks.

Because the telefilm is concerned with depicting Caine’s past in rich detail, the exigencies of the present receive rather short shrift.  Present-day Caine happens upon a crew, largely made up of Chinese immigrants, who are laboring to lay tracks for a railroad.  The Caucasian boss (Barry Sullivan) is a hard-ass who evinces no sympathy for the sufferings of his workers, but neither he nor his cronies are particularly villainous, merely insensitive.  Future series-episodes manage to address, with greater effect, the marginalization of non-white peoples in a dominantly Caucasian country.

Though present-day Caine does champion the cause of the oppressed workers—he ends up setting a bridge on fire in protest of his people’s treatment—the narrative drive stems from the fact that Caine himself is a fugitive from the Chinese legal system.  A Caucasian bounty hunter shows up at the work-camp and attempts to take Caine prisoner.  Caine bests him easily, but the altercation alerts the boss and his henchmen to Caine’s extra-legal status.

Alternating with Caine’s perils in the present are the flashbacks to show how a priest with supreme martial arts skills came to be a fugitive in a foreign land.  Caine is first seen as a child in China, orphaned by the deaths of his Chinese mother and American father. He seeks out the security of a Shaolin monastery, and despite his mixed heritage is admitted, which sets him upon the path of what might called “enlightenment through advanced butt-kicking.”  The numerous disciplines of the Shaolin monks are always justified as being first and foremost directed to the initiate’s quest for harmony with the world, and a monk’s ability to fight should be used only as a last resort.  Of course, given the demands of an ongoing series, “last resorts” come up almost every episode, although on occasion the writers of KUNG FU did have Caine place the desire for harmony above the more familiar TV-role of “policeman” or “avenger.”

That said, Caine, unlike many TV heroes, is guilty of a murder, although it’s committed in the heat of passion, when Caine’s beloved Master Po is callously shot down by the nephew of the Chinese Emperor.  The nephew commits this act by using one of the pistols perfected by Western craftsmen.  Thus the gun, which allows the nephew to kill easily, both brings about his own death (Caine impales him with a spear) and causes Caine to flee to the land of his Caucasian father. 

In this story Caine does not appear particularly “uncanny” in his talents, with one exception.  Bound to a central tent-post by the railroad men, Caine uproots the post and uses it to club one of his adversaries into dreamland.  This is clearly not a “marvelous” level of strength, but it is the sort of uncanny feat one often sees performed by Tarzan or the various incarnations of Italy’s “Maciste.” However, the feat receives so little emphasis that I don't deem it as changing the overall naturalistic thrust of the telefilm.

The film ends as Caine is forced to engage in a battle with another bounty hunter, this one from China and equally gifted in martial fighting-skills.  Caine could be said to satisfy the Christian associations of his surname in that he ends up killing the hunter, though most future episodes will not portray Caine in such desperate straits.

The first regular-length episode to be broadcast is entitled “King of the Mountain,” which again pits Caine against another bounty hunter, whom he battles, appropriately enough, atop a mountain.  But the main “threat” is that the wanderer Caine is almost drawn into the peaceful life of a faux-family.  Caine befriends a boy orphaned by an Indian attack, and when he learns that the boy’s only relatives are venal scumbags, he takes a job on a widow-woman’s ranch so that the boy will be provided for.  Some possibility for romance is suggested, but the intrustion of the hunter causes Caine to realize that he must, in the tradition of other fugitive-heroes, move on. 

Two scenes are noteworthy: for the first time, Caine’s beliefs in harmony are seen to have palpable effect, as he “gentles” an untamed horse purely by communicating his good will to the creature.  Caine also looks into the soul of his pursuer and psychologically reads his fascination with death.  This proves prophetic, as the hunter ends up killing himself in his efforts to capture the fugitive.  The first of these scenes is sufficient to rate “King” as an uncanny narrative.

“Dark Angel” shifts back to the naturalistic mode.  Complementing Caine’s almost-initiation into family dynamics in “King,” the fugitive tries to track down the family of his American father.  He first encounters a “faux father” in the form of a preacher/conman, Serenity Johnson—appropriately portrayed by John Carradine, real-life father of David.  Serenity saves Caine from being hung for the murder of a prospector committed by hostile Indians, but Caine isn’t able to save Serenity from his own folly.  The preacher pursues the dead prospector’s strike, but the Indians catch him and expose him to the sun, causing Serenity to lose his sight.  Caine labors to give Serenity a crash-course in Shaolin sensitivity, so that he can navigate almost as well as the blind Master Po. 

At the same time, Caine is able to locate his paternal grandfather, but Henry Caine proves to be a bigot who resented his son’s marriage to a Chinese wife, and hates Caine as the fruit of that marriage.  Caine isn’t able to penetrate the grandfather’s hostility, but Serenity rains down “hell and brimstone” on the old man.  Henry yields to Caine some key knowledge: that Caine has a half-brother somewhere—which development gives Caine a new purpose in his father’s land, beyond just running from the law.

Though the KUNG FU telefilm was weak in its depiction of the problem of racism, the third episode “Blood Brothers” makes up for that lack.  While searching for his half-brother Danny in a small town, Caine stumbles across the fact that Lin Wu, one of Caine’s fellow monks, lives there—or has lived there, since no one in town seems to know what became of him.  Caine protects a Chinese patriarch named Soong from the town’s young rowdies, but even Soong and his family members won’t reveal Lin Wu’s fate.

It will surprise no one that this is another take on the popular formula seen in the film “Bad Day at Black Rock,” or that Lin Wu is dead, killed by the racist rowdies.  The episode also presents Caine in a rather activist role.  He responds to Soong’s accomodationist tactics of keeping his head down at all times by saying that “the more you attempt to remain unseen, the more they will feel free to seek you out.”  Caine persuades Soong to seek justice for Lin Wu in the American law-courts, and manages to win over the somewhat xenophobic locals to the sociological concept that the people of China are no less human than themselves.

As in the telefilm, Caine’s interaction with Chinese nationals allows for them to spread the myth of Shaolin supernatural skills, as when Soong tells the local sheriff that “a Shaolin priest can walk through walls.”  Caine doesn’t quite do this, but when the lawman confines Caine to a jail-cell, the Shaolin does break free by rather handily bending apart the bars of the cell’s window.  Therefore this episode also falls within the province of the uncanny. 


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