'American Born Chinese' review: Michelle Yeoh-led show is one of the year's best surprises


All these hands, and not a single hot dog finger. — Photos: Disney+ Hotstar

Based on the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, the Disney+ series American Born Chinese proves to be one of the year's best surprises.

A coming-of-age story that at times brings to mind TV greats My So-Called Life (though this one is from a boy's perspective) and Freaks And Geeks, American Born Chinese manages to blend a realistic portrayal of modern American teen life with a fantasy about a mythical realm – and it works!

By turns heartfelt, funny and action-packed with kung fu fights, American Born Chinese is smartly written and plotted. It even weaves in the story of an Asian American '90s sitcom star (Ke Huy Quan) who has a complicated modern-day relationship with the stereotypical character who made him famous. It's a tangent, but a tangent that's logical, true to the show's themes, and, again, it works!

The primary plot follows Jin Wang (Ben Wang), an insecure high schooler who through the course of the eight-episode first season gains confidence and tries to figure out his identity.

Through Jin, American Born Chinese explores the first-generation American experience, from unintended slights by his white peers and adults in his school to parallels between Jin and his engineer father, who plays it safe at work, much to the annoyance of Jin's more forward mother.

It's not every day that the Goddess Of Mercy wins an OScar, ok?It's not every day that the Goddess Of Mercy wins an OScar, ok?

An early example of adults in Jin's life making assumptions comes when the school principal orders Jin to allow a new student, Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), who the principal introduces as "Wang Chung," to shadow Jin simply because "he's Chinese like you."

But it turns out Wei-Chen, who brims with self-confidence, is on Earth in disguise: He's actually the son of the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), the mythical ruler of a celestial realm. Wei-Chen is on a mission to find "the fourth scroll" and prevent an uprising by Bull Demon (Leonard Wu), his father's nemesis. Wei-Chen seeks assistance from empress Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh), who comes to Earth posing as an auntie who Wei-Chen lives with.

Yes, the mythology sounds dense, but credit showrunner Kelvin Yu (Bob's Burgers, Central Park) with making it play out in a way that makes sense. Aside from the hour-long premiere episode, most episodes, which all stream May 24, run around 30 minutes, another wise choice where running time is tailored to the material and not vice versa.

Stop me if you've heard this one: Goddess of Mercy and the Monkey King walk into a cafe...Stop me if you've heard this one: Goddess of Mercy and the Monkey King walk into a cafe...

The show's My So-Called Life vibe is most acute in the high school setting where even Jin, as the protagonist, can be selfish and easily annoyed, often out of fear of what others think of him. At one point Jin tells Wei-Chen, "Just text it to me like a normal person." Viewers can tell by Wei-Chen's crestfallen expression that those words hurt like a dagger.

To label American Born Chinese a kids' show does it a disservice. It's an all-family series that not only focuses on the teen characters but also spends a lot of time on Jin's parents and their relationship.

The show's success at blending disparate, discrete genres is best displayed near the end of the first episode where the show cuts between an amazingly choreographed kung fu fight and an argument between Jin's parents. Both fights have the same familial themes at the root of the conflict – living in reality vs. fantasy – and the parents' argument is just as rough-and-tumble as the kung fu. Credit Yu's writing and director Destin Daniel Cretton, who helmed the Marvel hit Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, for pulling that off.

Yeoh and with American Born Chinese co-star Jim Liu in a scene from the series.Yeoh and with American Born Chinese co-star Jim Liu in a scene from the series.

For promotional purposes, Disney+ got lucky that both Yeoh and Quan won Oscars this year for Everything Everywhere All at Once, but their presence in American Born Chinesemisn't a fluke; it's a credit to the actors' taste in good material. American Born Chinese is every bit as innovative in its own right as Everything Everywhere, and, frankly, though I admired Everything Everywhere, I enjoyed this more coherent, less confusing Disney+ series more.

"American Born Chinese" ends its first season by wrapping up its primary story but then delivers a cliffhanger that will have viewers eager for more. Creatively, there's no question American Born Chinese delivered and deserves to continue. – Review by Rob Owen/The Tribune-Review/Tribune News Service

8.5 10


American Born Chinese delivers creatively, and deserves to continue.

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