A global cast reimagines Chinese mythology into intriguing fantasy adventure full of laughs and action.
Plot: Based on Gene Luen Yang’s groundbreaking graphic novel that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a regular American teenager whose life is forever changed when he befriends the son of a mythological god. This is the story of a young man’s battle for his own identity, told through family, comedy, and action-packed Kung-Fu.
Review: In an era of superhero overload and comic book adaptations aplenty, it should come as no surprise that the marketing for American Born Chinese has been predominantly focused on the martial arts and supernatural elements of the series. Featuring a stellar cast of Asian and Asian-American actors, including Everything Everywhere All At Once stars Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and James Hong, American Born Chinese is far more than just an action-adventure. The series is a modernized retelling of the Monkey King legend from Chinese mythology blended with a contemporary tale about fitting in a multicultural world. While it is not quite as epic as the trailers make it out to be, the series is an engaging and relevant watch with solid stunts and special effects.
Based on Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese comprises four interconnected story arcs. The main tale centers on Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a high school student struggling to be cool while balancing the tension between his parents at home. Trying to start fresh as a sophomore, Jin is saddled with an exchange student, Wei-Chen (Jim Liu). Little does Jin know, but Wei-Chen is the son of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), from whom he has stolen a powerful staff in an effort to find the mysterious Fourth Scroll to battle the Bull Demon, Niu Mowang (Leonard Wu). With the guidance of the goddess Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh), Jin must guide Wei-Chen on his quest here on Earth while the various mythical gods and monsters stand in their way. It is an intriguing approach to telling a coming-of-age story and one that brings a good deal of wuxia action sequences.
The second story arc centers on Jin’s parents. Christine (Yeo Yann Yann) and Simon (Chin Han) fight incessantly about money, work, and their relationship, which puts their son in an uncomfortable position. Much time is spent with the spouses seemingly on the verge of divorce. The third thread follows the realm of Heaven, where we see Sun Wukong and Niu Mowang and all of the other mythical beings in their true form. Using lots of make-up effects, the fantasy elements of this story are very cool and provide an entry for the average viewer to understand the vast myths and fables from Chinese history. The fourth thread, which seems disconnected for most of the series, follows Freddy Wong (Ke Huy Quan), a former sitcom star from the 1990s who becomes popular again as a meme despite the stereotypical and racist elements of his performance. All four of these threads take a while to come together over the eight-episode season, but it makes for a very intriguing narrative when they do.
For much of the series, American Born Chinese feels like a higher-end program we would have seen on The Disney Channel in the pre-streaming era. Ben Wang is good as the story’s main character as he navigates bullying, fitting in, and having a crush on the popular Amelia (Sydney Taylor). A lot of these sequences deliver a good amount of realistic teen drama while still managing to be funny and approachable at the same time. There are also some solid moments featuring Rosalie Chiang, voice star of Pixar’s Turning Red, and the other teen cast who do good work here. The challenge is blending the supernatural with the everyday, as much of the story feels disjointed when trying to bridge the two worlds of this series. Luckily, the over-the-top fantasy world of Heaven allows Stephanie Hsu, Jimmy O. Wang, Ronny Chieng, Poppy Liu, and more to chew the scenery as martial arts-skilled warrior deities.
Series creator Kelvin Yu, best known for his work as a writer on Bob’s Burgers, delivers an engaging teen-centric series that does not pander to the younger viewers tuning in, nor does it preach about racial and diversity themes, even though they are all key to this story. The all-Asian creative team, including directors Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and Lucy Liu, dive deep into the rich history of Chinese myths while capitalizing on stellar costume design and some very cool fight choreography that echoes Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and modern superhero films. Where the series falters is in the balance of the various storylines. Aside from a flashback-heavy fourth episode, much of the series shifts between the storylines through each chapter, sometimes without explaining why a scene matters to the events of the episode or the series overall.
There is more than enough action, laughs, and mesmerizing mythology to keep viewers entertained as they watch American Born Chinese. There are some pulpy and silly moments, but it all works to build towards the final episode, which helps cement this series as a unique superhero origin story. Fans of the original graphic novel will notice that many liberties have been taken in adapting this series, but they work to translate this layered tale into something special. I would have liked a little more balance in the storylines, but I had fun watching this distinct take on the Journey to the West legend that should open a lot of viewers to a cool library of tales they may never have known about otherwise. Plus, some very cool fight scenes rival any of the MCU series that have premiered on Disney+.
American Born Chinese premieres on May 24th on Disney+.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/american-born-chinese-tv-review/