The idea of “finding your own path” has always loomed in the back of my mind. From seeing movies like Everything Everywhere All At Once and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, this idea has never been more prevalent in today’s time than now. With the world, societal norms, and personal circumstances constantly changing, trying to forge your own path can be difficult. In American Born Chinese, this concept strongly resonates with those with similar circumstances, accomplishing it superbly.
American Born Chinese follows Jin Wang (Ben Wang), your typical high school student who’s born and raised by immigrants Christine (Yeo Yann Yann) and Simon Wang (Chin Han). Though he has simple goals, his life gets turned around after exchange student Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) enters his life. After learning Wei-Chen’s origins as the son of “Monkey King” Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu) and his quest to stop an evil uprising, the two embark on a journey to stop what’s coming. However, Jin Wang faces a personal dilemma on whether or not he’s truly the hero Wei-Chen prophesizes him to be.
After learning about the source material’s production after watching, I can definitely say that this show does a great job with adapting Gene Luen Yang’s work. First off, Ben Wang and Jimmy Liu are great as Jin Wang and Wei-Chan respectively with the two being able to bounce off each other in a way that doesn’t overdo their performances. Though the two share an awkwardness at the start, the show uses this to its advantage, creating this social confliction that continually builds emotional tension. As the story marches forward, this dynamic begins to feel more personal and carries its influences to other relationships.
This goes for the relationship between Jin’s parents Christine and Simon. Though we don’t learn until later on about their lineage, the narrative slowly places their relationship on the forefront without overshadowing the main plot. Christine is a risk-taker and pushes Jin to be the best he can be while Simon, an introvert at heart, wants Jin to focus on his work while still succeeding. Over time, their contrasting personalities clash, influenced by Jin’s attempts to reconnect them and influencing Jin’s lifestyle at school. I have to say these parts resonated deeply with me since I’ve faced similar circumstances, though not as strongly as this show puts it. Furthermore, Wei-Chan’s relationship with his father also expands this emotional dynamic.
On the other end, Wei-Chan is more rebellious and leaves his father and Heaven to go searching for this fabled Fourth Scroll. In turn, the goddess of mercy Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh) guides him to continue down this road despite his father’s doubts. Unlike Jin’s inner emotional struggle to speak out, Wei-Chan’s confidence and rebelliousness shows another side of this spiritually unified relationship. Wei-Chan remains determinant throughout the show and his father slowly learns this with Guanyin bridging this connection with actual wise advice. Together with Jin’s side of the show, these interpersonal elements serve as a great emotional core to the overarching story.
In the background, there’s this sitcom called “Beyond Repair” that features (questionable) comic relief, Freddy Wong (Ke Huy Quan). While the source material uses this for laughs, the show integrates the off-putting comedy in a way that nails in important social context. Throughout the show, Wong is placed in these comically harsh jokes that are only used to stoke the fire in Jin’s school life. However, near the tail end of the season, the transformation this sitcom takes leads to one of the best speeches that Ke Huy Quan has put on ever. Seeing this little side plot grow into something more important than itself really just pieces it all together.
Aside from the story, the show has these awesome fights sprinkled throughout each episode. From the majestic sweeps of Yeoh’s Guanyin against Niu Mowang (Leonard Wu), the show’s big bad, to larger hard-hitting pieces like Sun Wukong and Niu Mowang’s later bout, each fight doesn’t give off stiffness and capitalizes on the emotional tension in a satisfying way. I’ve got to give props to stunt coordinator Liang Yang and cinematographers Brett Pawlak and Alan Poon for such great work with these scenes.
However, though this show has all the elements to be amazing, I do have a few nitpicks with it. The biggest of these has to be the tonal whiplash between some important scenes between Jin and Wei-Chan. It can sometimes feel like going from emotionally grounding to physically intensive at a moment’s notice, which brought me out of some scenes. Furthermore, some of the comedy in the latter half didn’t particularly land for me, though it was mostly restrained to the ancient history episode. I didn’t find myself loving the scenes in the mythological realm either, but they were luckily well-rounded by the show’s earthly events.
Overall, American Born Chinese is a great show that splendidly utilizes its accessible themes and Asian American culture, leaving viewers feeling both entertained and enriched. Though this show’s world relies on its contrasting narratives, it’s able to mostly balance tone, action, and plot to create a relatable story. As someone who’s a part of the Asian American community, I found myself bearing similar, if not the same, emotional luggage that Jin faces on his personal journey. It’s after realizing this now that the show’s elements finally begin to connect beautifully.
Though this show may not be on everyone else’s radar, I do hope that this show gets its second season. With the influential direction of Destin Daniel Cretton and Kelvin Yu and this ensemble cast, this show certainly left its mark on me in a big way. Who knows? Maybe it’ll find its way to your heart too.
American Born Chinese is now streaming on Disney+.