During their first lunch together, Jin Wang (Ben Wang), the shy teen protagonist of Disney+’s American Born Chinese, notices something unusual about his new friend. Although Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) is new not just to the school but the country, he seems to have no qualms about calling out the bullies mocking them, and no worries about making a scene doing so. “You don’t ever really doubt yourself,” Jin observes, with a mixture of awe and embarrassment.
But Wei-Chen — the son of a deity, and secretly new to human life — is nonplussed. “Why would I ever doubt myself?” he asks. That push-pull between insecurity and confidence will remain at the heart of American Born Chinese, through all manner of drama, action and fantasy, with wildly entertaining and occasionally touching results.
American Born Chinese
The Bottom Line
A delightfully zippy update to 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 braids together Jin’s earthly teenage woes, a Journey to the West-inspired fantasy epic and scenes of a classic sitcom featuring an offensive Asian stereotype (Ke Huy Quan). But its core elements have been updated, remixed and expanded. In this version, Wei-Chen has enlisted Jin on a quest to help his father, Wukong the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), foil a plot by the Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) against their heavenly empire — all while Jin struggles to balance schoolwork, soccer, 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 up eight half-hour episodes that’ll sit alongside She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and Ms. Marvel on the streamer’s home screen. (And if the open-ended season finale is any indication, American Born Chinese is hoping to return for more seasons.) For the most part, its big ambitions yield big rewards. Destin Daniel Cretton brings to the first episode the same facility for blending together heartfelt drama and superhuman spectacle 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 twirling through the air and literally running up walls as a camera zips up and down hallways — at least until the finale, also directed by Cretton, that takes an unfortunate turn toward Marvel-esque sky portal nonsense.
The show’s breathless momentum does shortchange some of the characters’ relationships and motivations. We never do get specifics on Bull Demon’s nefarious plans, for example — much less any sense of whether his grievances against Heaven (which does look pretty insufferable, based on a playful episode-long detour to a celestial party) might be at all justified. But it’s hard to mind much when American Born Chinese is having so much fun. Even as the narrative’s stakes rise to the next plane, 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 auntie, finds herself stymied by an Ikea coffee table. “I’ve 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 talents, from Ronny Chieng, Jimmy O. Yang and Stephanie Hsu chewing scenery as otherwordly beings to Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han imbuing a lifetime of shared love and disappointment into their mundane human roles as Jin’s parents. Such casts may no longer be the rarity in Hollywood that they were even a decade ago; the past year alone has yielded Asian American projects as varied as Pachinko, Fire Island and Everything Everywhere All at Once (to name just a few). But American Born Chinese knows the past casts a long shadow, and reckons in bittersweet fashion with the long history of American culture depicting Asians as foolish or repulsive, when it bothered considering us at all.
When Jamie (Quan), reflecting on his problematic role decades later, explains that he stopped acting because the only parts he was being 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 in Everything Everywhere All at Once. And although 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 inescapable catchphrase (“What could go Wong?”) makes clear how much of his insecurity stems from a painful awareness of the way people who look like him have so often been seen.
Where American Born Chinese comes up a little short is in expanding its focus from its individual characters to the harmful culture surrounding them. While it calls out the microaggressions that Jin faces at school, or the biased system that keeps Jamie from professional advancement, it finds no villains among them; its only true menace is a demon whose inability to find the courage to chase his dreams has curdled into resentment. The story becomes about how Jin deals with a racist meme, not about taking to task the classmates passing around the meme to begin with; about Jamie grappling with his legacy, not about why his character was and remains “iconic” to so many fans.
The result is a show that feels like it’s pulling its punches without completely realizing that it’s doing so. If the anguish and anger of Yang’s comic book landed like a smack to the face, Yu’s series feels like a shove — still forceful 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 bracing sense of confidence. American Born Chinese is fundamentally Jin’s story as he goes on a journey of self-acceptance, eventually realizing that he’s enough just as he is — that he doesn’t have to let the world tell him who he is or what he deserves or what he’s capable of. But in spirit, it’s far closer to the superhumanly assured Wei-Chen: unafraid to reach for the stars and let its true colors show, and all the more inspiring for it.