BLACK SASH (2003) – This program was basically a vehicle for Baguazhang-style martial artist Russell Wong and only produced 8 episodes, 2 of which were never aired. Wong starred as Tom Chang, an undercover narcotics agent who was framed and spent 5 years in a Hong Kong prison.
Black Sash was widely bashed in its day but here in 2021 it seems a little bit like an unappreciated program with unfulfilled potential. Part of the problem with the show was its neither fish nor foul nature. Despite the above premise it was NOT an action drama about Chang kicking butts and busting heads to clear his name and return to the force.
Instead it dealt with the main character moving to San Francisco and running a martial arts school while trying to reestablish a relationship with his 12 year old daughter and his remarried ex-wife. He also became a mentor and surrogate parent to his students. At least one fight scene against genuinely dangerous assailants featured in each episode, too, often having to do with Chang’s sideline as a bounty hunter.
But talk about hard to categorize! Think of Black Sash as Cobra Kai crossed with Dawson’s Creek. Or maybe an Asian-led variation of The Master, the old Lee Van Cleef series, with less action but with likable characters and more interesting dialogue. Or how about Michael Nouri’s show Downtown with troubled teens replacing the parolees who helped him fight crime?
Taking it from the top, when Tom Chang arrives in San Francisco his old mentor Master Li lets the jobless, unfairly ruined figure run his martial arts school. Hmmm. It’s a show from long ago that needed a reliable, sedate philosopher type? Uh oh! Better get Mako! To play the Master Li character, I mean.
Chang’s old master also sets him up with lodging down on the wharfs, providing a sufficiently dangerous neighborhood to make some of the run-ins with the criminal element a bit more plausible.
Our protagonist teaches his students Baguazhang, the Art of 8 Palm Changes, and it comes in handy for them in various situations ranging from fighting bullies to solving murders and surviving brushes with crime. Often the danger escalated to the point where Tom Chang himself had to step in.
One exception to that formula involved Tom’s female students learning to protect themselves against would-be rapists and stalkers. The program presented them using what they learned to settle things themselves. And it did it without the self-congratulatory tone that a 2021 production would have wallowed in.
Similarly, the diversity of its cast was smooth and natural, not condescendingly dwelt upon like it would be today. Wong bedded down with a few white women during the show’s brief run, but again, it was treated maturely and not like a finger-wagging lesson.
That approach and Russell Wong’s performance are about the only positives. Like any show with young people featured prominently some of the problems the kids face seem pretty shallow. Plus the uneven mixture of life lessons, martial arts competition and occasional crime fighting left the show seeming like it was always searching for direction.
Other cast members were Sarah Carter, Ray J, Drew Fuller, Cory Sevier and Missy Peregrym, all of whom had greater success outside of this program.
It’s far from the end of the world if you never catch an episode of Black Sash, but fans of Russell Wong or of Cobra Kai type of dramas would likely appreciate the show. And with so few episodes it’s not hard to binge-watch.
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