It is difficult for me to understate the influence Gene Luen Yang’s original graphic novel American Born Chinese has had on my life and career, but I’ll admit I was apprehensive upon learning it was getting turned into a streaming series. After watching the Disney+ adaptation, it is a huge relief that this action/comedy series wound up being fun, bold, and at times buck wild enough to stand apart from both its award-winning source material and the previous work of its Academy Award-winning cast.
American Born Chinese is set in the modern day, when Jin Wang (Ben Wang) stumbles upon the knowledge that the gods and figures of Chinese folklore and mythology are very, very real, which is news he takes with little to no shock. It is initially really confusing how quickly he jumps at the chance to help new kid Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) because Jin desperately wants to just be normal – even after learning his new bud is the runaway son of Sun Wukong, the legendary Monkey King. Enough celestial figures show up in rapid succession that I started to understand Jin’s resignation as a viewer, because when gods start showing up on Earth, what is a high schooler supposed to do to stop it?
American Born Chinese Stills
First and foremost, this is an unapologetically bold show. It clearly has something to say about the Chinese-American/universal immigrant experience while also being a martial arts coming-of-age tale, meaning it jumps head-first into East Asian storytelling ideas and elements. A solid chunk of the dialogue is spoken in Mandarin, Wuxia (Chinese martial arts historical fantasy) influence is everywhere, there’s at least one fight every episode, Beijing Opera and Eastern epic-inspired presentations, and comics and manga are important factors in the plot. American Born Chinese can be seen as a sort of young adult novel version of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, and while it doesn’t quite reach the same Oscar-worthy status, it does fully embrace that movie’s spirit of having a complete lack of shame in every motion it makes and the myriad places it draws from.
But what about those motions? With everything built around the magical, the mystical, and the martial arts, those elements needed to be rock-solid – and they very much are. The special effects, make up, and costumes are superb, and not only truly capture the otherworldly nature of the denizens of the heavens but take the time to occasionally poke at the ridiculousness of it all. The fighting and choreography are tight, engaging, and make sense when they show up in the story; there is never action for the sake of action. I sort of expected the fight scenes to have some element of humor to them in the style of Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow, but for the most part they don’t – and that’s great. Every meeting of blows is important and is treated with the respect of the fact that everyone’s collective worlds will end should the wrong warrior come out the victor.
Performances by Ke Huy Quan and Daniel Wu are real standouts.
Writing using mythological characters can be tricky considering their personalities have more or less been pre-loaded for possibly thousands of years, and this show doesn't defy that rule. In fact, I’d say that I’m not sure many characters show much personality in general – and that includes the more earthly characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because of what the story is trying to do: both Jin and Wei-Chen are trying to find themselves and figure out just who they want to be, Jin’s parents are also trying to rediscover who they are amidst culture-inspired marital issues, and the more godly characters stick to “role playing,” for lack of a better term; they all clearly have a role to play in this hero’s journey and they don’t really stray from or expand on it.
And that’s okay! They’re clearly using the tried-and-true algorithm of the American coming-of-age story, but filling the slots in it with characters and perspectives many might not be familiar with. This also isn’t to say any actor was playing their character poorly. Most of the performances are pretty good, though there are two real standouts: Ke Huy Quan as Jamie Yao/Jimmy Wong and Daniel Wu as Sun Wukong.
Quan is basically playing characters who are the physical manifestation of his Oscars acceptance speech, so every word he says rings that much more genuine and heartfelt. His character Jamie Yao is ashamed to have played “America’s favorite neighbor” Jimmy Wong on an old in-universe TV show, and is a re-imagining of the caricature Chin-Kee from the graphic novel. In fact, that whole aspect is fairly meta, as I’m not sure if another actor could’ve played the character without feeling like they were beating you over the head with the message.
And despite being in a cast filled with rising stars and Oscar nominees, Daniel Wu has the single best performance in the entire show, hands down. While he’s normally played as impish, vain, and power-seeking, Wukong here is a father who is terrified to lose his child to the consequences of the, well, monkey-like actions of his younger self. This isn’t the first adaptation of the Monkey King – not by a loooong shot, as even American Born Chinese points out – but this might be my favorite because both his writing and Wu’s performance make him feel like a real person and not just some battle-hungry but charming trickster god. Even his fighting style feels desperate at times, which is not something I’d ever say about the character who may be best known today as Goku from Dragon Ball.
In keeping the American Born Chinese name, this show seems to lock in the fact that the core of the story is acceptance of personal identity. This is examined through virtually every character not played by Michelle Yeoh, whose goddess of compassion and mercy comes out of the box fairly complete. The only problem I had with this – at times – was because everyone was doing it, there wasn’t enough time given to main man Jin to feel fully cooked. His character development happens in a flash during the last few minutes of both the first and last episodes, and doing so in a very “tell not show” way, and it all makes him come across a bit unrelatable.
Even through some unexciting character choices and some themes and ideas that take a second to get going, my ultimate measure of anything is “did I have fun?” I had a blast watching American Born Chinese. The most fun thing was seeing it as a whole as a genuine love letter to everything Gene Luen Yang is about and exhibits in all of his comics, though you certainly don’t have to have been a fan of Mr. Yang, his work, or even Chinese fairy tales to enjoy watching. The major thing I didn’t have fun with, though, was the reimagining of the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say this: as a fan of the graphic novel, I disagree with it pretty strongly. Not enough to undo the good of the show proper, but it does make me a tad nervous.
American Born Chinese is a fun, bold reimagining of the American coming-of-age tale, combined with Chinese mythology and a deservedly award-winning graphic novel. There are lots of moving parts in a short amount of time, but it works in a seriously charming way when all brought together with excellent fight choreography to tie a bow on it. The storytelling falls just a bit short on some of the more ambitious ideas it presents, but none of it takes away from the joy or excitement I felt watching people discover who they truly are through Wuxia god nonsense, all on the back of superb performances from Ke Huy Quan and Daniel Wu.