*The following American Born Chinese review is free of spoilers. The review is made possible by advanced screeners of episodes 1-8, provided to Agents of Fandom by Disney for review purposes*
With films like Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All At Once, Asian-led stories in Hollywood are on the rise. Joining this refreshing list of content is a new Disney+ series, American Born Chinese, based on Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel of the same name. This story is praised for its deconstruction of Asian stereotypes and the way it deals with the theme of identity.
While I haven’t yet read the graphic novel, I can share that this live-action adaptation encapsulates what it means to be an Asian-American in modern society, whether you’re a teenager, a middle-class immigrant parent, or an actor. This series features a predominantly Asian cast that all are given the care and agency they deserve. The combination of a coming-of age story, Kung-Fu action, comedy, drama, romance, and Chinese folklore shows that this series has something for all types of viewers.
What is ‘American Born Chinese’ about?
The series is from Emmy Award-winning writer/producer Kelvin Yu (Bob’s Burgers) and Marvel Cinematic Universe director Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings). It follows Jin Wang (Ben Wang), an Asian-American teenager struggling to find his place during his sophomore year in high school.
He’s forced to be a guide to a new Chinese student, Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), which puts a wrench in his plans to be popular and join the varsity soccer team. But what Jin doesn’t know is that Wei-Chen is actually the son of the mythological god, Sun Wukong/The Monkey King (Daniel Wu).
This union between these characters drives the series in balancing between two major stories: Jin’s grounded coming-of-age tale of high school drama, family drama, romance, and finding one’s identity, and Wei-Chen’s action-packed journey to prevent a (literal) heavenly war (while also dealing with family drama himself). Although it can feel jarring to bounce back and forth between these main storylines, each one is fleshed out enough to invest viewers.
I personally felt more drawn to the scenes centered on Chinese folklore characters because I was introduced to their backstories. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of Jin’s struggles. As an Asian-American, Jin is torn between his parents’ teachings and expectations, and the need to fit in at school. For those that come from immigrant families, this arc will feel very relatable. How much personal change is really worth throwing away our values and friends? I thoroughly enjoyed how much the series explored this question.
‘American Born Chinese‘ embraces everyone and everything all at once
When I saw the trailer for this series, I was blown away by the cast. Upon discovering that Academy Award-winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, Academy Award nominee Stephanie Hsu, and Screen Actors Guild-winner James Wong, all appeared in this show, I felt thrilled about a mini Everything Everywhere All At Once reunion (you’ll have to tune in to see if it happens).
Yeoh is a literal goddess in this series; she plays Guanyin the Goddess of Compassion and Mercy. Although she’s compassionate and merciful, she is given some impressive fight scenes that showcase Yeoh’s skills. If this series gets renewed for a second season, I’d love to learn more about Guanyin’s backstory.
Without revealing too much about Ke Huy Quan’s character, it’s a very fitting role for him to play considering his own personal journey. Similar to his award speeches, Quan delivers one of the most inspiring and impactful lines in the show with ease.
What makes this series really special is how almost every main character is given their own personal arc. Jin’s parents, Simon (Chin Han) and Christine Wang (Yeo Yann Yann), are dealing with marital issues, which affects Jin’s school and social life, causing him to act out and push people away.
But it is not just their concern for Jin that drives their development. It is refreshing to see who would usually be considered secondary characters deal with their own personal issues throughout the series. It presents itself as more than just a young-adult series, but something for older audiences to enjoy and relate to as well.
‘American Born Chinese’ joins the fight for more Asian-led stories
It is interesting to see how this Disney+ original deals with stereotypes and microaggressions directed towards Asian-Americans. Because Jin attends a predominantly White school, he is the victim of comments and memes that reduce him to a version of himself that doesn’t exist. The series doesn’t dig deep into this issue, but I appreciate that it is shown, nonetheless.
What I find really amazing about this series are the visuals. Since this show deals with supernatural beings, it is exhilarating to see that the characters and settings aren’t all completely CGI. It is used sparingly in the series, only when necessary.
The fight scenes are also incredibly exciting. Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton directs a few episodes here, and just like the action sequences in the MCU film, these are fast-paced and intense.
Is American Born Chinese worth watching?
Besides some whiplash from jumping between different stories, the series also suffers slightly from a pacing issue depending on which plot you find yourself invested in. However, with all episodes being released at once, binging it will be a better experience than week-to-week. With a series that fleshes out many characters, deals with relatable topics, boasts an all-star cast, and features incredible fights, most of the issues are just minor nitpicks for a great series.
Take it from this Canadian-born Filipino: there is something for all types of viewers to enjoy. Just because the characters don’t look or deal with the same things as you, doesn’t mean that what they are experiencing isn’t real. There are many lessons, educational and moral, to learn from this series. With the slight uptick of Asian-led content being made, let’s continue to do what we can do to show Hollywood that there is an increasing demand for Asian representation in media.
All eight episodes of American Born Chinese are now streaming on Disney+. Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on the Agents of Fandom socials!
'American Born Chinese' Review'American Born Chinese' Review
- Almost every main character gets a personal arc
- Important themes and lessons discussed
- Fast-paced fight scenes
- Use of practical effects and settings
- Slow pacing during certain storylines
- Jarring experience bouncing between different characters