American Born Chinese Review

American Born Chinese
Jin (Wang) is a teenager struggling to fit in among his peers. When he is assigned to show new exchange student Wei-Chen (Liu) around, he is unexpectedly thrust into an epic battle between mythical Chinese gods — including the mysterious Guanyin (Yeoh).

by Laura Sirikul |
Updated on

Streaming on: Disney+

Episodes viewed: 8 of 8

Gene Luen Yang wrote the 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese, based on his adolescent years in the early ’90s, about the difficulties of being Asian in America, smartly weaving Chinese folk tales and mysticism into its three-part story. This adaptation from showrunner Kelvin Yu takes the book’s core elements and reimagines it as a single charming epic adventure. The mythology of the original is threaded into the story of Jin (Ben Wang), an insecure teenager in middle America; after meeting new-kid-in-school Wei-Chen (an excellent Jimmy Liu), son of the legendary Monkey King (Daniel Wu), Jin finds himself embroiled in a celestial war.

With Shang Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton as lead director and executive producer, the series heartily embraces the fantasy superhero genre, modernising elements of the classic 16th-century Chinese novel Journey To The West for a wider audience. While the graphic novel dealt heavily with Jin’s place in the world, Yu and Cretton successfully balance it with some mayhem-packed, well-choreographed fight scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in the MCU. The action sequences are riveting, making excellent use of theatrical wushu and ‘wire fu’; an epic showdown between Wei-Chen and villain Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) is especially energetic.

Instead of feeling like a lesson in Asian-American life, the show simply treats the microaggressions matter-of-factly.

Yet it’s the non-celestial characters that prove the heart of the series, with an authentic portrayal of a loving immigrant family grappling with a world that sees them as ‘other’. Instead of feeling like a lesson in Asian-American life, the show simply treats the microaggressions matter-of-factly. The school’s Principal, for example, constantly mistakes Jin’s name for ‘Jim’, and assigns him to show Wei-Chen around because, as they’re both Chinese, they will have “so much in common”.

There are genuine and relatable storylines, too, from Jin’s immigrant parents, Simon (Chin Han) and Christine (Yeo Yann Yann). Simon finds himself unable to ask his boss for a well-deserved raise, desperate not to cause trouble, while Christine is keen to contribute to the family by starting a small business.

And then there’s newly minted Oscar-winner Ke Huy Quan as Freddy, an actor who once starred in a fictional ’90s sitcom with some offensive Asian stereotyping (including the tagline, “What could go Wong?”). In a neat parallel with Quan’s own real-life experience in Hollywood, Freddy feels constantly patronised for his past role, and struggles to find work that doesn’t consist of “nerds, neighbours, and sometimes ninjas”. It’s an incisive bit of commentary, and only a shame that Freddy’s story is quickly brushed aside for the overarching adventure plot.

But that makes sense: American Born Chinese is essentially about Jin’s journey of self-acceptance and how the people around him play a part in that. That’s the theme that runs through these episodes, from Jin’s parents encouraging him to be himself, to Jamie telling Asian kids that they don’t need to be the punchline. Despite having no magical powers, Jin is the embodiment of that message: that anyone could be the hero.

A coming-of-age story — with some fantasy-infused martial arts for good measure — American Born Chinese is an entertaining ride, with a refreshing take on cultural identity that never feels like a lesson.
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