Sunday, April 13, 2008

"The Tide"

In “The Tide,” Cain demonstrates two important values in his belief system; that it is better to trust, even when trust leads to betrayal, and that it is acceptable for a man to love a woman, even when that relationship leads to pain.

Caine is passing through a coastal town, presumably in California, when he is recognized and arrested by the local law, Sheriff Boggs (veteran character actor Andrew Duggan). When it becomes clear to Caine that Boggs would be just as happy to collect the reward for a dead Caine as a live one, Caine fights his way free and escapes, but is shot and wounded in the process. A Chinese woman that lives in the town, Su Yen Lu (Tina Chen) helps Caine and hides him, at first in a barn and then in a cave on the rocky shore of the ocean.

Su Yen Lu is the daughter of an important Chinese poet whom Caine recognizes and for which he has great admiration, a man imprisoned for political reasons by the same emperor that has put a price on Caine’s head. In Yu’s care, Caine is slowly healed and he becomes Yu’s lover. Unbeknownst to Caine, however, Yu is betraying him. She sends for her brother, Wong Ti Lu (played by the wonderful Japanese-American character actor, Mako). Her plan is to ransom Caine to the emperor in exchange for her father’s freedom.

When the plot is revealed, a pretty cool fight scene ensues but Caine agrees to be the Yus’ prisoner. As they try to leave the cave, however, Boggs catches up with them, shoots and kills Wong Ti Lu, and is shot himself by Su Yen Lu. The plot foiled and the treachery revealed, Caine and Su Yen Lu agree to part ways, with Caine bearing a book of her father’s work and no real malice.

What’s significant about “The Tide” is the emphasis placed on the flashback scenes. Every episode of “Kung Fu” makes use of these, usually to show Caine’s thinking or make some comment on his current action. In this case, there are two flashbacks that reinforce the theme of trust and love.

In the first, young Caine and a fellow acolyte named Hong Fo are on their way to the market to buy food for the Shaolin monastery. An old man by the roadside warns the boys that there are too many bandits on the road, and diverts their path. They are robbed. (Another great Asian-American character actor, James Hong, whom you may recognize as “Seinfeld? Four?” and the great villain Lo Pan in the delightful Big Trouble in Little China.) When Caine and Hong Fo return to the temple, Master Kan asks what they learned from the encounter. Hong Fo responds, “Never trust anyone.” Caine responds, “Expect the unexpected.” Hong Fo is summarily dismissed! Only Caine has shown the capacity Kan seeks – he tells Cain that it is better to trust in the good of all people, even when that trust leads to betrayal. Kan wants Caine to preserve not a face of animosity to the world, but one of collaboration.

In the second flashback, Kan and Caine are at a street festival watching an attractive woman perform a folk dance. This is a great scene, with the great Philip Ahn as Kan looking on the performance and smiling and Radames Peres as Caine, behind Kan, looking deeply uncomfortable. Kan, not even looking at Caine, asks Caine what he is feeling. Caine insists he feels nothing. Kan knowingly informs Caine that what he feels for the woman on stage is natural and not something to be fought. This is a wonderful moment by Peres, who just looks at war with himself, the Shaolin equivalent of getting a hard on in math class and wishing you could sink into the earth.

Thus, the Shaolin flashbacks are just as much a part of “The Tide” as the action with Su Yen Wu, her brother and Sheriff Boggs. It gives us a more complete picture of Caine the man, though it raised several questions for me. Specifically, it caused me to question whether Caine is a priest of Ch’an Buddhism, as I believe the Shaolin were and are, which would have made him a celibate. I believe he is not a priest in the strictest sense, that since he was always destined to “snatch the pebble and leave” he is not bound by the same regulations as a full-fledged Shaolin monk – even though he wears the brands on his forearms. Certainly, the series played fast and loose with Chinese philosophy and history, so strict adherence to a historically accurate view of a Shaolin monk or Chinese philosophy is not necessarily a priority. The show’s philosophy, as we have noted, is a 1970s hybrid of new age ideas. But to hell with it, this is a show about a half-Chinese kung fu guy wandering the Old West, after all! The point is Caine long ago learned his lessons at the feet of Master Kan. He trusts, he loves, he accepts betrayal, he conquers, and his heart is unstained at the end, he moves on.

Still, I hope to spend some more time on the philosophical side of “Kung Fu” and the characters Master Kan and Master Po later. I’d also like to write more about Mako, who had wonderful roles in the Conan movies and a show I like called Avatar and who just died in 2006. Tina Chen, I believe, is the attractive Asian woman who gets killed in the beginning of Three Days of the Condor.

As enjoyable as this episode was, I like this format a little less than I do the one in which Caine is a supporting character undermining the Western, so I can only give this three out of four yin-yangs. IMDB for “The Tide” is here.

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Blogger Greg said...

Great post Charlie - just catching up on a few blogs.

Yes, this episode stands out for me too, for having more about Caine's background. Your comments about his adherence to the path match my own thoughts. Caine regularly recalls his Master telling him to embrace what life offers, while staying true to oneself, yet Caine as a young man seems to think many things are not for him and his priestly way of life.

Once he departs from China, it is possible he sees the practical effect of following his Master's advice. He does not seek to experience all that life has to offer, yet he is open to whatever comes across his path, so to speak.

Is he still a Shaolin priest at this point, though?

7:52 PM  
Blogger Charlie Kondek said...

Glad to see you, Greg! I owe you an email.

It is interesting, isn't it! I think Caine's teachers had in mind for him something beyond priesthood, knowing, as they did, that he was not completely Chinese. And they're okay with that, don't you think? They're not too specific in their training or expectations.

At the same time, I wonder what, specifically, a Shaolin preist's duties really are? If you're not living the monastic life, what are you out there doing in the world?

8:48 AM  

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