During their first lunch together, Jin Wang (Ben Wang), the shy teen protagonist of Disney+ American born Chinese, notices something unusual about his new friend. Even though Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) is not only new to the school, but to the country, he seems to have no qualms about calling out the bullies who taunt them, and no worries about making a scene doing so. “You never really doubt yourself,” Jin notes with a mixture of awe and embarrassment.
But Wei-Chen – son of a deity, and secretly new to human life – is not convinced. “Why should I ever doubt myself?” he asks. The push-pull between insecurity and confidence will remain at the heart of American born Chinesethrough all kinds of drama, action and fantasy, with wildly entertaining and sometimes touching results.
American born Chinese
A nice lightning fast update of the source material.
Creator Kelvin Yu treats Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel less as a template for his series than a springboard. The key ingredients of the source material remain intact with a narrative that weaves together Jin’s earthly teenage years, a Journey to the West-inspired fantasy epic and scenes from a classic sitcom with an offensive Asian stereotype (Ke Huy Quan). But its core elements have been updated, remixed and expanded. In this version, Wei-Chen has recruited Jin on a quest to help his father, the Monkey King Wukong (Daniel Wu), prevent a plot by the Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) against their Heavenly Empire—all while Jin struggles to balance school work , football, a tense home life and a hopeless crush, each of which seems to leave him feeling inadequate in some way.
The new material turns what once felt like a personal story with potent metaphorical flourishes into something more like a superhero saga, all the better to fill eight half-hour episodes that will sit alongside She-Hulk: Lawyer and Mrs. Marvel on the streamer’s home screen. (And if the open season finale is any indication, American born Chinese hopes to return for multiple seasons.) For the most part, its big ambitions yield big rewards. Destin Daniel Cretton brings to the first episode the same facility for mixing heartfelt drama and superhuman spectacle that he showed in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The show’s action is a particular delight, with physics-defying showdowns that see characters spin through the air and literally run up walls as a camera zips up and down corridors – at least until the finale, also directed by Cretton, who takes an unfortunate turn towards Marvel-esque sky portal nonsense.
The show’s breathless momentum shortchanges some of the characters’ relationships and motivations. We’re never given details about the Bull Demon’s sinister plans, for example—much less any sense of whether his grievances against heaven (which look pretty insufferable, based on a playful episode long detour to a celestial party) might even be justified. But it’s hard to think much about when American born Chinese having so much fun. Even when the stakes of the narrative rise to the next level, the series finds room for clever pop culture references or silly bits of humor. Like when Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh), a glamorous goddess of mercy posing as a sweatpants-clad, buffet-loving aunt, finds herself stopped by an Ikea coffee table. “I have eased the suffering of millions, calmed oceans,” she huffs. “I will not be defeated by Swedish furniture.”
Yeoh is perhaps the biggest star among a cast filled with beloved Asian and Asian American talent, from Ronny Chieng, Jimmy O. Yang and Stephanie Hsu, who chew scenery like other beings to Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han, who permeate a lifetime with shared love and disappointment. their mundane human roles as Jin’s parents. Such actors may no longer be the rarity in Hollywood that they were a decade ago; the past year alone has yielded Asian-American projects as varied as Pachinko, Fire Island and Everything everywhere at once (to name just a few). But American born Chinese knows that the past casts a long shadow, and bittersweetly reckons with American culture’s long history of portraying Asians as foolish or repulsive when it even bothered to consider us.
When Jamie (Quan), reflecting on his troubled role decades later, explains that he stopped acting because the only roles he was offered were “nerds, neighbors and sometimes ninjas,” it’s all too easy to see him as a parallel-universe version of Quan himself – one who never got to make his triumphant, Oscar-winning comeback Everything everywhere at once. And while Jin’s self-consciousness is practically a universal teenage experience, the quiet humiliation on his face when he encounters old clips of Jamie’s character Freddy delivering his inevitable catchphrase (“What could go Wong?”) makes clear how much of his insecurity stems from a painful awareness of how people who look like him have so often been seen.
Where American born Chinese falls a bit short is in broadening its focus from its individual characters to the noxious culture that surrounds them. While it calls out the microaggressions Jin faces at school, or the biased system that keeps Jamie from professional advancement, it finds no villains among them; its only true threat is a demon whose inability to find the courage to chase his dreams has hardened into anger. The story is about how Jin deals with a racist meme, not about taking the classmates to walk around the meme to begin with; about Jamie struggling with his heritage, not about why his character was and remains “iconic” to so many fans.
The result is a show that feels like it’s dragging on without quite realizing it’s doing so. If the angst and anger of Yang’s comic fell like a slap in the face, Yu’s series feels like a push — still powerful and attention-grabbing, to be sure, but with a less acute sting.
Yet what lingers at the end of each episode is not the memory of its shortcomings, but its empowering sense of self-confidence. American born Chinese is basically Jin’s story as he goes on a journey of self-acceptance, eventually realizing that he is enough just the way he is – that he doesn’t need to let the world tell him who he is or what he deserves or what he is capable of. But in spirit it’s far closer to the superhumanly confident Wei-Chen: unafraid to reach for the stars and let its true colors show, and all the more inspiring for it.