It’s hard to pin down the identity of “American Born Chinese,” the new live action adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s acclaimed graphic novel of the same name from creator Kelvin Yu. Is it a fantasy epic of warring ancient gods? A modern-day high school romp about a second generation Chinese American teenager trying desperately to fit in? A tender examination of multigenerational trauma and the scars that can unwittingly be passed on from parents to children?
The answer is all of the above and, as you may expect, it comes with mixed results. At its best, “American Born Chinese” is a delightful and refreshing exploration of diasporic identity, a thrilling martial arts fantasy and a heartwarming tale of family and friendship. However, the series’ disparate storytelling styles don’t often blend as seamlessly as we might like, making the whole show just a bit less effective than the sum of its parts.
The story, which departs significantly from Yang’s novel, follows Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a Chinese American teenager who wants nothing more than to be accepted as one of the cool kids. He is embarrassed by anything that makes him feel different, including his love of manga and his Chinese parents (Chin Han and Yeo Yann Yann, who both shine in subtle and poignant performances). It’s a storyline we’ve seen many times before from the perspective of many teenage protagonists who find themselves on the outside of a group to which they desperately want to belong. From Jin’s perspective, his Asian identity keeps him from achieving his goals, although it’s left up to interpretation whether he might be othering himself with those feelings.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the latest meme going viral around his school features the humiliation of a racist Chinese character from an ’80s sitcom (played by a delightful but underutilized Ke Huy Quan), or that Jin soon finds himself the subject of said meme following an embarrassing mishap at school. All Jin wants is a spot on the soccer team, a date with a pretty classmate and to be accepted by his peers. Yet, all those wishes feel woefully out of reach.
That alone could be (and has been) the plot of a perfectly charming, if fairly familiar teen dramedy. But running adjacent to Jin’s storyline is a parallel plot that makes “American Born Chinese” anything but ordinary.
The first character we meet in “American Born Chinese,” in an episode directed by “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” director Destin Daniel Cretton, is actually Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), the immortal son of the legendary Monkey King (Daniel Wu). Western audiences may or may not be familiar with “Journey to the West,” the 16th century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en that tells the story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. For those unacquainted with the tale, the new show provides a crash course on the basics, but with its own unique spin.
Wei-Chen kicks off the story by stealing his father‘s magical staff in pursuit of the fabled Fourth Scroll, which will help him prevent an uprising that is brewing in Heaven. To that end, Wei-Chen assumes the form of a human teenager and inserts himself at Jin’s school, posing as a student. Certain that Jin will lead him to the Fourth Scroll, he befriends him, somewhat against Jin’s will. At first, Jin is extremely reluctant to be associated with Wei-Chen (their introduction comes by way of a well-meaning but culturally insensitive principal, who assigns Jin to be Wei-Chen’s guide on the sole basis that they are both Chinese). But gradually, he comes to realize that they have more in common than he thought.
Wei-Chen is aided on his journey by the celestial Guanyin (played by the incomparable Michelle Yeoh) and a handful of other colorful characters making cameos from Heaven. Yeoh gets plenty of opportunities to display her formidable martial arts skills as the powerful goddess, but also gets to flex her comedy muscles whenever Guanyin interacts with Wei-Chen as a human. There, the goddess of compassion delights in her disguise as a sweatpants-clad Auntie determined to enjoy all of the little pleasures the mortal realm has to offer, from buffets to assembling Ikea furniture. It’s a delightful role for the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star, and the Oscar winner is clearly having a blast.
As Wei-Chen searches for the Fourth Scroll, he butts heads (and horns) with Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) who, as we learn in a flashback episode, used to be best friends with the Monkey King but is now his (im)mortal enemy.
For the first two-thirds of the series’ eight-episode season, these two storylines — Jin and Wei-Chen‘s high school hijinks and the celestial battle for control of Heaven — play out in parallel. Considered individually, they’re each extremely entertaining, but they never blend together particularly well. Wei-Chen is the only character that bridges both storylines, and while the fantasy sequences and impressive wuxia-inspired fight scenes (and there are a lot of fight scenes) are thrilling to watch, his character feels most fleshed out in his human scenes with Jin.
Similarly, in addition to Yeoh, the stunning supporting cast includes her “Everything Everywhere” co-stars Stephanie Hsu and James Hong in addition to Quan, along with a number of recognizable Chinese actors including Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng and “Turning Red” star Rosalie Chiang. But while all of these amazing actors absolutely deliver the goods in their scenes, their characters feel much less developed than Jin and his family. It feels particularly like a missed opportunity that Quan barely gets a chance to play the actor behind his stereotypical ’80s character. When he does, he brings so much poignancy to his few scenes that it’s frustrating there aren’t more of them.
Still, “American Born Chinese” never fails to entertain. By the end of the season, both the heavenly and mortal storylines solidly fuse together to deliver a thrilling and satisfying conclusion — along with a cliffhanger that sets up a potential Season 2. It’s a series that is never dull to watch, and although some of the handling of its themes may be a bit on the nose (Chiang’s Suzy at one point gives an impassioned speech about embracing Asian identity while standing atop a table in the middle of the cafeteria), its endearing characters and earnest humor leave the series feeling light on its toes.
Overall, “American Born Chinese” delivers a fun and imaginative take on how it feels to exist with a foot in two different worlds, whether that’s as the child of immigrants or as the immortal heir to a celestial dynasty. It’s an enjoyable examination of friendship, family and finding identity as a product of disparate cultures, with plenty of action and adventure to keep viewers engaged along the way.
“American Born Chinese” premieres Wednesday on Disney+.