TV Reviews

American Born Chinese (Season 1) – TV Review

The Chinese American experience has been an extremely difficult one over the last 200-or-so years. From the early immigrants to the ‘New World’ being exploited as cheap and expendable labour building the Transcontinental Railroad, to their ghettoisation and quarantine due to an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the 20th Century, their story has been tinged with tragedy, as well as prejudice.

A more recent example of this came in the wake of COVID-19 sweeping the world, leading to a certain President of a rather peculiarly tangerine hue labelling the pandemic with a racist epithet. This led to a dramatic spike in hate crimes against Asians in America, with the stigmatisation threatening the future of race relations with the Asian American population. Indeed, political rhetoric often seeks to paint China as being a significant geopolitical threat to the Western world, and it can only add to the risk of further alienation.

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Yet the Chinese emigrants have added so much to cultural richness in the United States during the last two centuries, including a breakthrough into mainstream entertainment. Like Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which managed to put the spotlight onto Chinese legends and mythology, via the typically staunchly American genre of superheroes, and 2022’s surprise sleeper hit Everything Everywhere All At Once,  the multiverse-hopping fantasy centred around a Chinese American family.

Interestingly, talent from both sides of the camera on those two properties have come together in a new Disney+ series, American Born Chinese. Director and co-writer of Shang-Chi, Destin Daniel Cretton, is one of the executive producers on the show, as well as helming both the opening and closing episodes. On the performance front, EEAAO’s Oscar winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan are reunited on the cast list, although not actually on camera, in the kind of lucky timing which content producers could only dream of, as filming had begun almost a year before the Academy Awards ceremony.

Photo by Carlos Lopez-Calleja. © 2023 Disney.

Since their wins, Yeoh and Quan’s stock has naturally risen considerably, so to have them appearing in the same project buys a whole lot of publicity. Interestingly, the duo only have supporting roles in the series, rather than the leading parts which you might perhaps expect. American Born Chinese is adapted from Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel, which addressed racial stereotyping and cultural integration, with elements from the Chinese novel Journey To The West being incorporated into the mix.

Journey To The West is already known to Western audiences thanks to Arthur Waley’s translation of the work, Monkey, which was turned into a TV series of the same name, and is probably best remembered for its frustratingly catchy theme music, ‘Monkey Magic’. Having that kind of awareness and familiarity with the source material will probably help give viewers something of a head start, and shortcut some of the explanations that might otherwise be needed. The Monkey King, Sun Wukong, is at the very core of the story, which sees an epic battle of gods reach the mortal realm.

Chinese American teen Jin Wang (Ben Wang) crosses paths with a Chinese exchange student at his high school, Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), who is something of an outsider, and he latches onto Jin with unusual fervour. Wei-Chen reveals himself to be the son of the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), and has come from Heaven on a quest to locate the mythical Fourth Scroll, which will determine the balance of celestial power, with an uprising in Heaven being threatened by Bull Demon (Leonard Wu).

Photo by Carlos Lopez-Calleja. © 2023 Disney.

After writing the original graphic novel, Yang would go on to work on scripting comics for both Marvel and DC, including Superman Smashes The Klan, and Monkey Prince, which is again based upon the legend of the Monkey King, and brings that mythos into the DC Universe. For audiences that are well versed in seeing live action renderings of beings who possess superhuman or supernatural gifts and abilities, a translation of American Born Chinese from the printed page to another medium is not a shock to their systems, with series creator Kelvin Yu managing to blend in Western-style superheroics with Eastern mysticism.

The show ostensibly has all of the hallmarks of your typical teen angst ‘coming of age’ high school drama, with boorish sports jocks, a clique of nerds, ‘friend-zoning’ agonies, etc. It also has an additional layer due to the racial component, and this spills over into Jin’s home life, with his parents Christine (Yeo Yann Yann) and Simon (Chin Han) struggling to make their marriage work, while also adapting to life in America. Getting the balance of the humdrum and mundane with the otherworldly is a fine tightrope to walk, but American Born Chinese does an admirable job on that front.

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For the first couple of episodes, the fantastical elements are drip-fed, gradually building up as if to acclimatise the viewers to what lies in wait. By the time we actually hit a mythology-heavy episode, the audience is already familiar with the basic set up, so it lessens the blow from veering off from the real world so markedly. Anyone expecting Yeoh and Quan to be front and centre will be mildly disappointed, but they do feature throughout. Yeoh manages to blend lighter moments with the kind of insane ‘wire-fu’ action we expect, whereas Quan’s part is more melancholic, and speaks to the shift in cultural attitudes and the media portrayals of ethnic groups in America over recent decades.

As our focal points of Jin and Wei-Chen, Wang and Liu make a rather endearing double act, and help carry the series along nicely. Wang is the ideal personification of an outsider trying to fit in as Jin, whereas Liu is very much the endearing ‘idiot savant’ type, with Wei-Chen walking two worlds, struggling to find his place in either. Watching their unlikely friendship grow and be cemented by the very end is one of the real joys of American Born Chinese, and while the story does find a natural conclusion by the final episode, the tease of a second season will hopefully pay off, as it really does feel like a show with a lot more to give.

American Born Chinese is streaming on Disney+.

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