With the new series “Kung Fu,” Sherri Chung becomes the first Asian-American woman responsible for the music of an hour-long network drama — and the choice could not be more perfect.
Chung has moved up through the ranks of television composers, working over the past four years on numerous Greg Berlanti-produced series including “Blindspot,” “Riverdale” and “Batwoman.”
But with the CW’s reimagining of the 1970s classic “Kung Fu,” Chung not only tackles the music of a talked-about series but is rediscovering her own personal heritage as well. “I was equal parts excited and terrified,” she confesses. “This series is celebrating both Chinese culture and Chinese-American culture. It’s breaking down old rules and walls, and creating a new narrative. I feel like I’m really part of that, which is special and totally unexpected.”
Chung is second generation Chinese-American: Her father is Chinese, although born in the U.S.; her grandparents emigrated from southern China. “Working on the show, when I see conversations between the parents, I wonder if those are some of the conversations that my grandparents had, and the sacrifices they made, coming over to this country,” she says.
The reconfigured “Kung Fu” not only recasts the lead as a woman but also fills the cast with Asian-American actors; showrunner Christina M. Kim is herself Asian-American and several of her writers are of Asian descent. Yet, surprisingly, Chung’s sex and ethnicity are not why she landed this plumb assignment.
She met executive producers Kim and Martin Gero while co-composing the weekly scores of their NBC series “Blindspot.” “It’s one of those perfect alignments,” she explains. “By today’s standards, it seems to make a lot of sense. But I appreciate that it came to me in that natural way, that there was already a connection there, as opposed to `we’re looking for a female, and a Chinese person.’ It puts the focus on relationships and music rather than on things I had nothing to do with.”
Chung and Kim talked at length about the role of music in “Kung Fu,” when it would be appropriate to invoke a “Chinese” sound and when to simply underscore the emotions of family and the inevitable action sequences, given the martial-arts skills that Nicky (Olivia Liang) acquired during her time in a Shaolin monastery.
“With the Asian parents, I do lean into the Chinese element,” Chung says, “because the cultural specificity is there. Some of the things they talk about are unique to Chinese culture or the immigrant story.”
She employs the unusual colors of the erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument; various Chinese percussion instruments including the paigu, zhangu, dagu and tanggu drums; and other Asian sounds including Dharma bells, tuned gongs and the pipe gamelan. Solos from the more conventional violin and cello, plus everything Chung herself plays including piano and electronics, flavor the weekly scores.
Pei-ling (Vanessa Kai), Nicky’s Shaolin mentor, has a theme that calls on these Asian sounds. “There’s also a theme that has nothing to do with Asian culture,” she adds, referring to her “Nicky’s Calling / Journey” theme, which refers to “following one’s heart, finding one’s purpose.”
Chung has about a week to compose each score, which can run 35 minutes or more. She continues to co-compose “Riverdale” and “Batwoman” (both with Blake Neely) and is starting work on the HBO Max animated series “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai,” which also boasts a mostly Asian-American cast. She was also recently nominated for a Society of Composers & Lyricists award for her music for the independent film “The Lost Husband.”
“Kung Fu” has already had a big impact, both on audiences and on Chung herself. But those roundhouse kicks as Nicky battles crime in San Francisco are nothing new to the composer: She has a black belt in Taekwondo.