I have to admit that the first two episodes of the Disney+ original series ‘American Born Chinese’ was a strange watch. It was a mix of what seemed like a bad wuxia or kung-fu film and a generic coming-of-age high school story. The wire work in the first fight scene in episode one looked a bit awkward and the overall design was a bit strange to me. It felt very American (bright colours, more for effect than for use) when compared to things like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ or ‘House of Flying Daggers’ or even the 80s kung-fu shows I used to watch (whose title escapes me at the moment and can’t seem to find via Google search).
It’s the story of the son of Sun Wukong, the famed Monkey King that is immortalized from the classic novel ‘Journey to the West.’ The son, Wei Chen, finds his way to earth, in a middle school in the US, to find a guide to help guide him to discover a magical fourth scroll. Disguised as an exchange student from China, he is partnered with Jin Wang, a typical Asian-American student with typical dreams. Despite being a big fan of manga, he wants to upgrade his status from being friends with the cosplay group and joining the soccer team. But being saddled with Wei Chen is putting a damper on his attempts at climbing the social ladder.
But, to his own surprise, Wei Chen has identified Jin as his guide and in the 8 episodes of ‘American Born Chinese,’ we are introduced into a world that is as heavy into its mysticism and adventure as it is in its social commentary on race relations in America.
The first two episodes was really just a set-up for a much more complicated dissection of typical narrative tropes found in American stories about Asia (specifically the Chinese) as well as deconstructing and analyzing the relationships between old and younger Asian Americans in the United States.
Because while the main story follows Wei Chen and Jin, it also takes it time to focus on the stories of Sun Wukong and his nemesis Niu Mowang, the Bull Demon; the stories of Jin’s parents as their marriage reaches a crossroads; and even side stories of the goddess of compassion, Guanyin, as she interacts with various supernatural beings hiding away in America in efforts to help Wei Chen in his attempt to discover the fourth scroll.
Once ‘American Born Chinese’ manages to settle into all of its various tonal shifts – from coming-of-age comedy, to mystical martial arts adventure, to a biting social commentary – it starts to show off how very much aware the show is of itself and what it is trying to do. The first two episodes looked off because it was off, and it feels it’s done on purpose. This is most evident in episode four when the whole episode is devoted to the history of Sun Wukong and Niu Mowang. Executed in the form of a 70s comedy show, the very tongue-in-cheek, very Americanized way by which they portray the Chinese world of the gods and goddesses, you understand the whole show itself is pushing back against the years of misrepresentation of American media on Asian American stories.
There’s even a magnificent side story about Jamie Yao, a former actor who played a very offensive stereotypical portrayal of a Chinese character in a fictional show called Beyond Repair. The snippets of ’s story intersects wonderfully into the show, as do all the varying subplots, that manages to become completely interconnected by the last two episodes.
What felt like a hodgepodge of different shows with different styles and genres come crashing together to tell a really strong story about a young man (Jin and Wei Cheng) who has to come to terms with the world and what their stake in it is.
Despite its uneven opening, I watched for the very precise performances of all its stars including Michelle Yeoh as Guanyin, Daniel Wu as Sun Wukong, Leonard Wu as Niu Mowang, and even Ke Huy Quan as Jamie Yao. The younger actors like Ben Wang (Jin Wang) and Jimmy Liu (Wei Chen) are still a bit awkward in carrying the whole show but it works so well as their characters are also still getting in tune with their surroundings. They are instantly elevated anyway by their co-stars. A big stand out is Yeo Yann Yann as Jin’s mother.
While the wire work in the first episode looked awkward, in later episodes it gets better, especially when Michelle Yeoh joins the fight. Leonard Wu and Daniel Wu have exceptional fight scenes later on in the show as well. There’s an equal play of English and Chinese, which I appreciated. It never felt like it rallied towards English just to satisfy its American audiences. When scenes needed to be in Chinese, they did so, and very generously.
At the same time, there were many instances when I thought they would resort to typical bullying character tropes, especially with Jin and his white soccer friends but it never does. It doesn’t deny that bullying does happen and there’s even a short subplot about it, but by and large, Jin is surrounded by ordinary people with nuanced relationships with race.
Overall, ‘American Born Chinese’ is a very surprising and refreshing show that is light and easy to watch but carries with it some really tough lessons if you dig deep enough. It’s refreshing and doesn’t feel like it’s pandering to its intended audience.