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Review: Warrior Episode 9 – “Chinese Boxing”

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We’ve finally reached the last two episodes of Warrior’s incredible freshman season! For a little background, when Cinemax was gracious enough to give some media outlets an advance preview of Warrior to promote the series, they only released the first eight episodes. That should give everyone an idea of how important they felt it was to keep these final two episodes under wraps. Spoilers below!

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Remember back in episode 7 when the episode ended with the Hop Wei and the Long Zii running towards each other in what looked to be the epic brawl we’ve waited all season for? And then in episode 8 we got just a few moments of that brawl then moved on? It felt a bit anticlimactic right (the rest of episode 8 was still amazing)? Given what happened there, it would’ve been reasonable to worry whether episode 9 would deliver on all the buildup for the duel between Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) and Li Yong (Joe Taslim). Fortunately, there was no need to worry, as episode 9 treated us to the most epic fight of the season, and one of the best, most brutal, martial arts duels in television history. Yes I said history.

The episode starts with a brief glimpse of Penny’s father and Leary (Dean Jagger) negotiating over the staffing of his cable car project. I’m not sure why they led with this moment. It’s clearly not what audiences are here to see, especially for this episode. Maybe they were trying to get it out of the way. Thankfully, after that scene, we’re taken straight into preparations for the kumite between Ah Sahm and Li Yong (this is obviously not literally a kumite as that’s part of Japanese Karate, but the fight felt very reminiscent of Bloodsport).

As Ah Sahm prepares, Young Jun (Jason Tobin) is with him. Unsurprisingly, Tobin shines in every scene he’s in. Jun gives Sahm a truly heartfelt word of appreciation, saying, “I know Father Jun won’t say it and I’ll forget later so…I just wanna say thanks. You didn’t have to do this.” To which Sahm incredulously asks, “I didn’t?” With a wry smile, Jun responds, “We’re having a moment here man, don’t f**k it up with the truth!” I love Tobin’s performance as Young Jun so much. He’s been the standout performer of this season for me. I assume he’ll eventually usurp the leadership of the Hop Wei from his father or start his own rival Tong, and I can’t wait until he’s made into even more of a focal point of the show. Hopefully Jonathan Tropper, Shannon Lee, Justin Lin  and the other lead creatives on Warrior recognize the talent they have in Tobin.

Big Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) and Officer Lee (Tom Weston-Jones) are on their usual patrol through Chinatown but find it strangely empty. O’Hara is happy to count his blessings for an evening of respite but of course Officer Lee wants to figure out where everyone has disappeared to. I mentioned last week that the literal buddy cop duo finally grew on me, and I enjoyed them in this episode. They’re finally at a level of trust and familiarity that allows the audience to enjoy them more as they seem to be enjoying each other. The two follow some late crowds into the underground arena where all of Chinatown has gathered to watch the epic duel. There, they run into Wang Chao (Hoon Lee) who welcomes them like the finest used car salesman you’ve ever seen. Chao assures the officers that everything is peaceful, and likens the event to a boxing match. O’Hara remains skeptical, refusing seats and beer…but not the opportunity to place a quick wager on the man he almost had killed in jail. Given O’Hara’s gambling history, this was probably our first ominous sign on how this match would go for Ah Sahm.

Our two gladiators enter the arena and face off on the mat. The rules are simple – you win by taking the sash from the opponent’s waist. However, as Li Yong says to Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) before the fight, only one of them is walking out of there alive.

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Ah Sahm and Li Yong cross arms in homage to Bruce Lee and Bizarro O’Hara in Enter the Dragon. The fight starts quickly and fiercely. This isn’t the “wire-fu” of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon type fame. This martial arts fight is raw, brutal and gritty. As the fight progresses, O’Hara and Lee are at once amazed and terrified. O’Hara says in awe, “I don’t know what the hell kinda boxing this is, but if they could all fight like this, we’d be in some deep s**t.” Officer Lee can only nod. The duel goes back and forth, though from my vantage point I’d say Ah Sahm seemed to be the better (and more arrogant) fighter. Indeed, Sahm gets the upper hand at a crucial moment with a fierce punch to Li Yong’s chest and seemingly knocks him out. Young Jun screams in excitement and urges Sahm to take Yong’s sash. What follows was a moment that was predictable, yet heart-wrenching. As Sahm lazily tries to untie Yong’s sash, Yong has an Undertaker moment and gasps back to life. Sahm is taken by surprise and can’t recover as Yong brutally presses his advantage. Sahm is left helpless on his knees and Yong prepares to break his beck and end the fight and Sahm’s life. Luckily for Sahm, O’Hara can’t allow that and intervenes by shooting his pistol into the air, stopping the fight and causing all of the attendees to scatter. Yong takes Sahm’s sash but leaves him alive. The fight is over and the Long Zii have won.

From beginning to end, the actual fight lasts about 6 minutes of screen time. In my interview with Rich Ting, who played Bolo, he mentioned that his own fight with Andrew Koji took at least one week to film. That fight, which was great, was substantially shorter than the duel in this episode. I can only imagine how intense the filming was for this scene. It’s said that Bruce Lee wanted to make martial arts films where the fights were more realistic than the ones that were being made at that time in China. I think he would have appreciated the way Stunt/Fight Coordinator Brett Chan and his team choreographed this fight, and how Andrew Koji and Joe Taslim executed it. The whole team paid appropriate respects to Lee with this incredible fight.

After the fight, Young Jun is furious and wants to renege on the agreement, but Father Jun says that he will follow through. Sahm however is dead to him after his loss. Father Jun is a cold man. Abandoned by the Hop Wei yet again, Sahm has only Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) and her new assistant Lai (Jenny Umbhau) to care for him. Penny Blake visits Sahm and tells him that she misses him.

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As he recovers from the brutal beatdown, Sahm has fever dreams of his past as a young boy in China. We see young Sahm and Mai Ling and how Sahm went from a boy getting regularly beaten up to a star pupil of a martial arts master. Surprisingly (or maybe not), we learn that it was Mai Ling who brought the master to train Sahm, a decision she would come to regret as Sahm leaves her and his home to complete his training.

Here’s the thing – everybody loves a great flashback training montage. Many great action films, especially martial arts films, have them. However, I can’t help but feel that this was a missed opportunity for the show. First, it’s strange to get a flashback training sequence after the big fight. Second, the flashback warranted its own episode. I would have liked to see one full episode where they more fully fleshed out Ah Sahm and Mai Ling’s past, and what Sahm’s martial arts training was like. His master is clearly well known, based on the scene in the first episode when Sahm tells Father Jun who his sifu was. What was his philosophy? What did he teach Sahm about mind, body and spirit? Martial arts is much more than just a physical exercise and I wish we had the chance to learn more about Sahm’s origin. Maybe we’ll get that in season 2.

Back in Chinatown, the elders of the Long Zii are officially recognizing Mai Ling’s leadership. However, one of the elders named Zhang loudly objects, questioning her tactics. This actually gives Ling a great opportunity to make an example out of someone as she swiftly busts a cap in his head. You knew Zhang was going to die because we had never seen him before and he was introduced just to loudly insult Mai Ling. This scene reminded me of Lucy Liu’s fantastic performance as O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill when she lopped off the head of one of the Yakuza members mocking her leadership.  Ling’s show of strength seems convincing enough for the remaining elders.

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Meanwhile, Penny’s father has ramped up production on his government contract, using Leary’s men as promised. However, the ever conniving Deputy Mayor Buckley visits him and manipulates him into using cheaper Chinese labor under the threat of a fake competing bid. Mayor Blake finds out about this and isn’t too thrilled, but Buckley convinces him that it’s in all their best interests. Of course Buckley’s true interest is causing more chaos to justify the Chinese Exclusion Act and curry favor with the Senator.

Sahm finally heals enough to get out of bed and Ah Toy is there to help him. Toy explains that he lost the fight because Li Yong had a cause to fight for while he was just fighting to fight. She wants Sahm to join her cause in fighting back against the whites on behalf of the Chinese. Sahm says it’s a fight they can’t win, but Toy says that the goal is to inspire others. Sahm believes that the fight is pointless because Chinese will never belong in America, but Ah Toy explains that the U.S. is a country of immigrants. Her goal is for the Chinese to own land and gain citizenship. It’s interesting to me that Ah Toy is the figure who want to fight for the rights of all Chinese. She’s positioned as the counterpoint to Buckley and those pushing for the Chinese Exclusion Act, but it’s not clear why she’s such a freedom fighter. We really don’t know what Ah Toy’s motivations are.

Finally, Young Jun returns to see Ah Sahm one final time. He tells Sahm that he’s no longer Hop Wei but that if he tries to join another Tong, they will put a bounty on his head. Sahm is alone again.

The episode ends with a shocking turn as Officer Lee is jumped by the Fung Hai. Lee manages to ward off two attackers with his baton, but the legendary Dustin Nguyen shows up and puts the smack down on Lee. This bold step is a reminder to O’Hara that he still has a gambling debt to pay and the Fung Hai aren’t letting it go. I was so tickled to see Nguyen get some action. He has such a great presence and is truly menacing as the new leader of the Fung Hai. I absolutely can’t wait to see more of him and his Tong.

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Episode 9 was an absolutely incredible episode, and in my opinion should’ve been the season finale. Although episode 5 remains my favorite episode due the way it turned western tropes on their heads, episode 9 was as exciting and intense as martial arts TV gets.


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Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture.  He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.

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