For years it has been a popular trope to partner the coming of age story with the fantasy genre. Some of the most successful fantasy franchises of all time have shown how effective this can be, with the likes of the Harry Potter series being the perfect example, or for those more attuned to the small screen, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) may be more apt.
Dropping recently on Disney+, American Born Chinese would no doubt like to emulate some of that success, with it attempting to straddle the line between real world drama and martial arts fantasy.
Loosely adapted from Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel of the same name, American Born Chinese incorporates elements from famed novel Journey to the West and accompanies these with the day to day life of teenager Jin Wang (Ben Wang), the American Born Chinese of the title.
Born to hard working immigrants Simon (Chin Han) and Christine (Yeo Yann Yann), Jin is a fairly normal teenager, with interests in soccer (or football as I would call it), manga and anime. Jin clearly struggles with his own identity and willingly turns a blind eye to people’s prejudices in order to fit in.
In what would be an otherwise normal day, Jin is introduced to exchange student Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) who acts very differently from Jin, being extremely loud and confident and showing none of the anxieties manifested in Jin. We-Chen’s behavior could be considered almost alien-like, which becomes more understandable when he is revealed to be the son of the legendary Sun WuKong (Daniel Wu), more famously known as the Monkey King.
Wei-Chen has traveled from heaven to our world after having a dream of a magical scroll that could stop the upcoming war in heaven. In order to find this scroll he will need an earthly guide and he has settled on Jin to help him on his quest.
Brought to the screen by Kelvin Yu, American Born Chinese is a novel attempt to update the Journey of the West tale for the 21st Century, with it featuring several exciting fight sequences, excellent production values and some noteworthy performances that help paper over some of the series’ drawbacks.
Being only mildly aware of the graphic novel, I can’t comment how much in total the show deviates from the source, but even in my limited capacity I could already see a number of noticeable changes. The main one is the setting, with the graphic novel taking place in the 1980’s rather than the modern day setting of the show. The other is that the novel focuses on three separate tales rather than combining them as the show does.
However, one main element the showrunner has kept mostly intact is the fact that lead protagonist Jin comes across as something of a dick. Seemingly embarrassed by his Chinese heritage, he is quick to turn a blind eye to his supposed friends’ clear racism and even worse allowing them to make a fool of his true friends, with him never standing up for them.
Throughout the majority of the first season I found Jin insufferable, with him constantly treating those closest to him like garbage. Be it his parents or Wei-Chen, Jin is quick to blame others for his own insecurities rather than facing the truth about himself. Only towards the finale of the season does Jin start to resemble a character that the audience can get behind.
This is in no way a critique of actor Ben Wang who does very well in the role. It is more to do with the writing, although the development of his character is clearly intentional as he will no doubt develop more in further seasons.
I must say, I did find it strange how quick he was willing to accept who Wei-Chen was. Most people would go through some form of denial, but hardly any time has passed until Jin is on board, or should I say believes. On board would assume that he would be focused on his friend’s quest, but considering the world ending stakes, Jin would rather go to parties and carry out dumb pledges just so he can join the soccer team.
One of my main gripes with the show was how much it focused on this aspect. Surely if you knew about an oncoming war in heaven you would be more focused. Because of this, I found the entire pace of the show severely affected. While there was no shortage of well choreographed fight scenes, there never seemed a real sense of menace, with characters racing against time to save the world. Here it was more like they would save the world if they could fit it in between soccer and cosplaying.
In fact, for a lot of American Born Chinese, the antics of the teenage cast aren’t even the main draw. Although theirs is more of a subplot, I found myself more interested in what was happening with his parents, who are beautifully played by Chin Han and Yeo Yann Yann. With their marriage stuck in a rut, they bring the real drama to the show, with the two of them unable to recognize what went wrong in their lives. They bring a real sense of pathos to the role.
In fact, it’s mostly all of the adult cast that make American Born Chinese worth watching. The producers really hit gold with the casting of both Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, who at the time still hadn’t won their Oscars for Everything, Everywhere All at Once (2022). It’s no surprise that Yeoh brings a sense of class to her role as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. She is one of the only Heavenly characters to support Wei-Chen in his quest, with her getting her own chance to show off her fighting skills when demonic forces come looking for him.
Ke Huy Quan on the other hand doesn’t really integrate with the main story, although his sub plot influences the overall story arc of the show. His scenes are equally important for what they have to say about the stereotypical view Hollywood has of the Asian community. One particularly poignant scene was even reminiscent of Quan’s Oscar speech where he speaks of the struggles he has gone through and how he wishes to inspire hope in the new generation.
Of course, being a big fan of Hong Kong action movies, the main draw for me was the appearances of the aforementioned Michelle Yeoh and Daniel Wu, an actor I feel never gets enough love. Wu has starred in countless quality features, with the likes of One Nite in Mongkok (2004), Overheard (2009) and the more recent Caught in Time (2020) show his range as an actor. He may be best known to casual viewers for his role as Sunny in the post apocalyptic Into the Badlands (2015), which like American Born Chinese takes inspiration from Journey to the West.
I appreciated here that Wukong was shown as a more mature, positive character, far removed from the impetuous Monkey King of some earlier portrayals. Wu still gets to show that side of the character in episode 4 which is mostly a flashback set thousands of years before, explaining how Wukong and Niu Mowang (Leonard Wu) turned against each other.
For me this was the series best episode, with a lot of it being played for laughs. It brought back memories of Stephen Chow Sing-chi letting it rip in Jeffrey Lau’s Chinese Odyssey movies albeit in a much diluted form. It not only injected some more humor into proceedings but featured a cameo appearance from movie legend James Hong.
American Born Chinese has a good calibre of directing talent working behind the camera, with the most notable being Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) Destin Daniel Cretton. Both the episodes he helmed are well done, if not the show’s best. Unfortunately, it also shares a similar feature of Shang Chi, with the finale of the show descending into an overblown CGI filled set piece rather than relying on the more martial arts orientated set pieces that have appeared throughout most of the series.
In no way perfect, but definitely worth your time. There’s enough action and drama crammed into these eight episodes of the first season to keep you entertained, coupled with some fine performances that make up in some way for the show’s shortcomings in regards to its overall pace. Additionally, there are enough story elements left in the air that would allow for a second season if the show is successful.
Plot: 3/5 Acting: 4/5 Action: 3.5/5 Overall: 3.5/5