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‘American Born Chinese’ Mashes Up Modernity and Mythology


Still from American Born Chinese
Disney+
Rating 6 out of 10

Hyped as an Asian-American high school coming-of-age mixed with Chinese mythology (including the infamous folk legend Monkey King/Sun Wukong), American Born Chinese also serves as a reunion for the stars of Everything Everywhere All At Once (Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu) in the new eight-episode Disney+ series.


Jin (Ben Wang) is a typical teen — he navigates high school hierarchies, a crush on a classmate, and soccer team tryouts. His life is thrown into disarray when a new student, Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), shows up claiming to be on a heavenly quest that involves Jin guiding him on Earth. Reluctant at first, Jin eventually gets pulled into a strange new world filled with bizarre deities and hybrid animal creatures.


There’s an eclectic mix of tones and styles in American Born Chinese that immediately brings to mind Everything Everywhere’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style of storytelling. One half of the show is a grounded, well-acted, high school and family drama. The other is an outlandish, mystical, brewing of war on the celestial plane with makeup and prosthetics as uncanny as 1968’s Planet of the Apes.


Peppered in between are meta moments with Quan as a ‘90s sitcom actor Freddy Wong, whose portrayal of a stereotypical Chinese character with a recurring punchline (“What can go Wong?”) haunts both Jin and himself. And there’s an entire episode that’s shot like a campy Chinese soap opera, from the over-the-top acting and character designs to the vintage opening titles. The dialogue is also almost entirely in Mandarin, which is unexpected. In fact, a lot of the show is done in Chinese, so kudos.


It’s hard to say that the zany combination of TV styles and genres gel particularly well together — I really dug the earthly scenes more than the heavenly ones — but American Born Chinese is certainly ambitious and memorable. It will, of course, tickle the fancy of those familiar with the stylistic references of the traditional Chinese soap opera and grew up with these types of shows playing in the background, but it’s a shame that this enriched style is not maintained throughout all eight episodes.


For the most part, the acting is solid. Wang is very believable as a young high schooler — a little awkward when talking to his crush or trying to diffuse a tense moment between his parents — but not shy or unpopular. His performance feels like a relief from the usual high school storytelling one would expect. His voice sits right on the precipice of puberty, and, as Jin, he remains a strong every-kid lead throughout.


A secondary storyline involves Jin’s parents — a stay-at-home mom (Yann Yann Yeo) and a taciturn engineer (Chin Han) — who argue often about money and how to ask for a raise at work. The trio’s fully fleshed relationships and painfully familiar tension makes the family scenes so realistic and compelling. Avoiding the stereotypical portrayal of a “tiger mom” or overly stern dad, the show smartly builds out the parents into interesting characters. Yeo, in particular, gives a really wonderful and nuanced performance as the loving but frustrated mother and wife with serious main character energy. The rest of the cast is expectedly good with Yeoh, Quan, and Hsu as side characters, as well as Daniel Wu playing the Monkey King himself.


Through Jin’s experiences at his predominantly white school, the show delves into modern discussions about racism, representation, and wokeness. Jin is turned into a school-wide meme after an embarrassing incident, but doesn’t use the moment to confront racism publically, which a fellow classmate (and only other East Asian student) chastises him for. A white girl repeatedly virtue-signals in front of Jin, but he brushes it off, not wanting to engage in a wider discussion on what is right or wrong. Racism touches his life, but it is not Jin’s main struggle, which is an unusual stance to make, but also pretty realistic for a regular kid.


The real and heavy confrontation is done by Quan’s Freddy, although not a central character. He addresses on TV his experiences about being turned into an endless joke on his old sitcom but having zero opportunities to play a hero when the show ended. This meta moment is imbued with the real experiences of Quan, who starred in ‘80s films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies before vanishing from Hollywood, discouraged by the lack of roles for Asian-American men in spite of his early success. His recent real-life comeback in his Oscar-winning turn on Everything Everywhere adds an extra-textual layer to Freddy’s hope that more Asian-American heroes, with or without superpowers, can be seen on screen.


With the ending of the season, we can only hope that every-teen Jin also learns that lesson.


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