[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “Warrior” Season 1, Episode 5, “The Blood and the Shit.”]
Cinemax’s new Western action drama “Warrior” is adding to the renaissance of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” Not only has his 2015 film been recut as a limited series for Netflix, but it also inspired the May 3 episode of “Warrior,” in which disparate groups of people become embroiled in a violent saloon shootout during a stagecoach stopover.
The episode marks a departure for “Warrior,” which is set in the 19th century Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Directed by Kevin Tancharoen (“The Flash”) and written by Kenneth Lin (“House of Cards”), the episode’s concept came from showrunner Jonathan Tropper, who wanted to “open up the world” of the series at its midway point.
“When Jonathan and I first spoke … we talked about a lot of Bruce Lee movies, but also just pulp films,” said Tancharoen. “Lots of Tarantino, a little [Robert] Rodriguez here and there. ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Hateful Eight’ were the big ones for the both of us. I re-watched ‘Hateful Eight’ and really loved it, and we got some ideas.”
In the episode “The Blood and the Shit,” Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) and Young Jun (Jason Tobin) are traveling by stagecoach with four other strangers while transporting the corpse of the Hop Wei tong leader’s family member. When they’re forced to stop at a saloon, they bring the coffin inside, but soon make a deadly encounter with outlaw Harlan French (Christiaan Schoombie) and his henchmen.
Lin, who was in the writers’ room to help break the episode back in 2017, said, “We were talking a lot about this phenomenon where these Chinese people came to America to build their new lives and always had the thought of returning home some day and somehow never made it back. But when they die, they all wanted their bodies sent back. So there was this cottage industry of this steady stream of Chinese corpses being sent back to China. And one of those corpses then becomes an integral part of the story.”
“Warrior” is one of many period dramas that are beginning to un-whitewash historical record by placing people of color back into the narrative after school books and media have largely ignored them. Tancharoen never thought he’d be able to tackle this genre with Asian actors at the forefront.
“When am I ever going to be able to do a scene where two martial arts masters walk into a bar with a priest, a racist, and an Annie Oakley, with a dead Chinese guy in a coffin? You just don’t,” he said.
The Other Chinese Guy
The travelers meet the saloon’s proprietor Billie (Erica Weasels) and her partner and cook, a Chinese man named Lu (C.S. Lee). It’s revealed that Lu had been one of the immigrants who had helped to build the railroads and now he’s in a professional and personal relationship with Billie. This interests Ah Sahm because he had just started an affair with a white woman before going on this trip.
“Our character would still be thinking of this woman, but it’s a big secret. He can’t tell Young Jun that he’s having an affair with a white woman in San Francisco, but we wanted to be reminded of her and to have Ah Sahm be able to see another mixed-race relationship,” said Lin. “But beyond that, we wanted to look at the pioneering spirit of the Chinese immigrants who come here and build a life for themselves, and to create a character who had really done that and was willing to die for the life that he had built in America.”
Meanwhile, in this episode Young Jun reveals a more contemplative side to himself, and no, it’s not when he romances the First Nations woman Wankeia (Rachel Colwell), who works at the saloon. When he sees Ah Sahm and Lu bond over their mutual hometown of Foshan in China, Young Jun says, “I’m a Chinaman who’s never been to China. I was born in San Francisco, but I’m sure no fucking American. I don’t belong anywhere… I’m just another onion taking up space.”
Lin said, “This is a person who has no country anywhere he goes. All of a sudden, a new friend arrives from China who even though he’s an immigrant, and even though he’s new, he still has a country in which to root himself. We thought it would be exciting for Young Jun to have a chance to really leave Chinatown for the first time and see the bigger country and see how that echoes with the Chinese immigrant experience.
“And to play on this theme of Young Jun being the person who had never left China before, we wanted to create a character who lived in China, who remembered China,” added Lin. “He’s able to bridge those two worlds and allow that to resonate with Young Jun, who is still very much building an identity over the course of the show and as a person living in America in the late 1800s.”
Amidst these examinations of race and identity, “Warrior” also provides another, more concrete visual of the East meets West contrast. Unprompted, Lu cooks up a dish of drunken chicken for Ah Sahm and Young Jun, who of course scandalize some of the more racist patrons who’ve never seen people eat with chopsticks before.
“It had to look authentic. That was something that we really tried to do, even down to the food choices, the kitchen, and trying to find simple Chinese things that would be in the kitchen in the process of cooking it,” said Tancharoen.
“Jonathan [Tropper] and Kenneth [Lin], the writer, definitely looked into the history of Foshan and the kind of food that would be considered traditional. What would [Lu] serve his ‘brother’ from there? We looked at different options and made sure that the meat was cooked in the way that they would cook it. A little bloody. It’s not super well-done. It’s still of the time that things weren’t regulated. They didn’t have a health code. We definitely wanted to make sure that it didn’t feel over-the-top gross or too pretty.”
Kung-Fu Meets Western Violence
HBO/ David Bloomer
Of course, once the chicken is eaten and the existential moments are contemplated, it’s time for action. When Ah Sahm initially scares Harlan off, it’s just a matter of time when he’ll return with more armed men. It turns out that the corpse they’re transporting for Young Jun’s father actually has a bag of gold nuggets hidden inside, and Harlan somehow knew about this. Faced with nowhere to go and no means of transportation, the group of strangers hunker down and wait to fight it out.
When the outlaws return, they’re greeted by Ah Sahm, sitting casually on the coffin. After trading relatively civil words with Harlan, he then whips out his hand and rips out Harlan’s windpipe before anyone can draw their guns, much less fire.
“I always think about what does the character need. You have an Ah Sahm who needs to single-handedly take on this entire group of roughnecks while stunning them to the point where these people who aren’t great fighters can take them on and win,” said Lin. “So how do you do that right off the bat? Well, you have to take out the head in the most surprising and gruesome way possible.”
From there, stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Brett Chan (“Marco Polo,” “Iron Fist”) worked with Tancharoen to balance the hand-to-hand intimacy of martial arts combat with the Westernized gunfire.
HBO/ David Bloomer
“I think anybody who trains in martial arts and is the stunt coordinator in film, there’s always this pet peeve about a kung-fu master fighting a person who could just grab a gun. A lot of the Chinese movies and the Bruce Lee movies, they’re period pieces for that reason,” said the director.
“That’s why with the props and the guns, we wanted to make sure we had the right type of guns that took a good amount of time to reload so that people weren’t just — bam, bam, bam, bam, bam — without stopping. They had to stop. They had to check their shell. They had to reload. And there was some time to do some kung-fu action while they were doing all that stuff.”
While Chan took care of figuring out the specific punches, kicks, and leaps, Tancharoen had to make sure it made sense in the limited space of the saloon set. Fortunately, he has a choreography background that has stood him in good stead as a director of action projects.
“I think the choreography background really came into play within a small space to block that many people within one room just because it is a skilled fight,” he said. “And the way I like to shoot fights, it’s essentially a dance, a choreographed number. I still love the way Stanley Donen, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly shot dance sequences, where they were longer takes, and you see everybody and you know what’s going on. So we really kind of tried to do that approach and we wanted to also incorporate that it was a bit more rough-and-tumble than Chinatown.”
The two-story saloon setting also offered a third dimension to play with for the fighting and shooting — both by gunfire and by camera.
“There’s a lot of challenges with having to do kind of a bottle episode with an enormous cast count. You can sometimes run out of ways to make things interesting,” said Tancharoen. “That was something that DP Ed Wild and I really wanted to try here. We wanted to really push it to look more stylized and pulpy.
“That third dimension was definitely very useful to have vantage points for the gun shootout, which was the hardest thing to put together. It’s so easy to do a shootout when you’re in the middle of a forest. But if you literally are in a small space where the geography is known, it’s a tricky thing. We had to figure out how our martial arts master evaded the bullets.”
The actual shootout doesn’t even last three minutes, but a lot of ground is covered and never feels static as the camera zooms up the stairwell, over balconies, on the other side of the bar, and through doorways to capture all of the action. Everyone gets in on the killing, even the women, and in the end, it’s the regular folk who triumph.
Riding Off Into a New Day
The next day after the fight, Ah Sahm and Young Jun decide to forgo the stagecoach and instead don cowboy hats, mount a couple of horses, and ride off as the words “The End” in English and Chinese flash across the screen.
“We definitely wanted to pay homage to — I don’t want to say grindhouse films, but that style,” said Tancharoen. “We wanted to make the pulp feel elevated and mature. That was one of my favorite moments, looking at these kung-fu ninjas putting their cowboy hats on and riding off.”
Lin points to a distinction in the end; Ah Sahm and Young Jun aren’t riding off into the sunset, but the sunrise. They’re wearing hats because the sun will soon be overhead.
“So much of this show is how they believe people are riding off into new beginnings,” said Lin. “Young Jun’s eyes are definitely opened in this episode as to who he is, and now that his eyes have been opened he’s able to head off into a new beginning. And I think Ah Sahm’s as well. He’s also riding towards what he left in San Francisco — his sister and this new love.”
On a more personal note, Lin said, “In a way the show is a new beginning for Asian American artists and Asian American audiences. One of the reasons why I decided to come onto the show was because I thought it was going to change the world in terms of representation of the Chinese in America, and the characters are also grappling with those same issues.”
”Warrior” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax.