The Incredible Stroke of Luck for ‘American Born Chinese’

While not nearly as cohesive or bold as ‘Everything Everywhere,’ the Disney Plus series ‘American Born Chinese’ does offer unique depictions and insights.

Disney/Carlos Lopez-Calleja
Jim Liu and Michelle Yeah star in Disney+'s new series, 'American born Chinese' Disney/Carlos Lopez-Calleja

“American Born Chinese” generated considerable attention when its teaser aired during this year’s Academy Awards telecast. The Disney Plus series had the distinction of featuring three of that evening’s nominees — Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu from “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — two of whom would go on to win, as would the film they starred in. The streaming series’ incredible stroke of luck with casting is both a blessing and a curse.

Based on Gene Luen Yang’s eponymous graphic novel, “American Born Chinese” draws on the classic Chinese lore “Journey to the West” and deploys its iconic characters to the present-day United States, where 10th-grader Jin Wang (Ben Wang) undergoes a cultural awakening. But the series doesn’t follow its National Book Awards finalist source too closely, preferring to tackle the same themes by realigning the characters and events.  

In the series, Jin seems atypical for a young Asian American. Instead of chasing academic excellence, he pours himself into making the soccer team. He is also not averse to starting fights or causing trouble. Even so, his experience as an Asian American student in a majority-white school borders on cliché. Teachers mangle his name. Athletes pick on him.

He becomes a laughingstock when a cringeworthy Asian caricature (performed by the Oscar-winning Mr. Quan) from a 1990s sitcom goes viral on social media. Jin endures hazing rituals to fit in. One doesn’t have to share his background to find these anecdotes uncomfortable. Yet they never resolve in ways we dread. Somehow, Jin manages to rise above.  

Jin’s fitful assimilation comes to a halt when the principal appoints him to show newly emigrated Wei-chen (Jimmy Liu) around on the assumption that they have much in common. Jin finds Wei-chen to be a drag because he doesn’t recognize any of their commonalities at first glance, and the chaperoning responsibility keeps him from ingratiating himself with the in crowd.

Jin doesn’t realize that the seemingly unworldly Wei-chen is the son of the legendary Monkey King (Daniel Wu), protagonist from “Journey to the West.” Wei-chen has descended to the mortal realm to circumvent an uprising against the Jade Emperor led by the Bull Demon (Leonard Wu). Already, despite their mutual comic-book influences and their toying with the multiverse concept, “American Born Chinese” cribs from ancient Chinese mythology while “Everything Everywhere” referenced Hong Kong cinema. 

“American Born Chinese” features a few impressive fight sequences, with the camera embedded in the middle of the action and gliding along the actors’ movements. Visually, the series seems to reference 1970s chopsocky, complete with rear-projection shots and terrible wigs, perhaps meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

The aesthetic is in full effect in episode four, titled “Make a Splash,” the contextual backstory about the origins of the centuries-long rivalry between the Monkey King and the Bull Demon, with music and typography seemingly inspired by Blaxploitation cinema. This particular episode actually follows the graphic novel closely, yet it feels like a digressive non sequitur within the series, like some episodes of “Atlanta” and “Twin Peaks.” 

While not nearly as cohesive or bold as “Everything Everywhere,” “American Born Chinese” does offer unique depictions and insights. It unabashedly casts an Asian American teen as a conventional all-American — a jock who pines for a popular girl — yet one still susceptible to the alienation and trauma informed by his heritage.

The depictions of Jin’s father, Simon (Chin Han), as a taciturn salaryman struggling to break through the bamboo ceiling, and Jin’s mother, Christine (Yeo Yann Yann), as a nagging homemaker who discovers her life’s calling much later as she begins peddling herbal supplements to her church group, are so uncannily on the nose that they breathe some nuance and poignancy into these well-worn archetypes. The final episode concludes with a cliffhanger, so hopefully the series will expand on the positives in its promised return.

The New York Sun

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