‘American Born Chinese’ Delivers an Impressive Melting Pot of Genres, but Leaves It Too Late to Make an Impact

via Disney Plus

Through his fantastic awards season, Ke Huy Quan highlighted the lack of Asian representation in the industry, by citing the impact that the likes of Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and of course, Everything Everywhere All At Once had all made. Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel – the inspiration behind American Born Chinese – did the same with much efficacy many years ago. The Disney Plus adaptation is an impressive attempt to traverse the complexities of being an Asian-American, coping with cultural and racial identity, and living with stereotypes – all elements of the young adult landscape.

The series is studded with an impeccable cast. EEAAO alum including Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, James Wong, and Huy Quan reunite in pivotal roles, with the latter getting another chance to reflect struggles of an Asian artist in the industry, which in turn reflects on the journey of our protagonist – Jin Wang. Rosalie Chiang of Turning Red plays Suzy Nakamura, whilee Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han leave a remarkable impression as Jin’s parents, portraying roles that further dive into the social complexities the show addresses.

But our hero here is Jin, played by Ben Wang in his first leading role; a high school kid who juggles between the traditional upbringing back home and fitting in with the American way at school and the soccer team. Though he loves manga based on Chinese heritage, his friend Anuj’s (Mahi Alam) cosplaying, and his collection of anime figures, he tends to discard all of it for the sake of assimilating with the school’s regulars in the hope of getting his classmate Amelia’s (Sydney Taylor) attention. However, things take a turn when Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) – a Chinese exchange student – collides with Jin, pushing him through a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Throughout the eight-episode first season, Jin and Wei-Chen formulate a growing friendship as their lives intertwine with the conflict and the intervention of gods in their lives. And in Jin’s journey of tackling identity discomfort, American Born Chinese offers its best parts. The show’s most exciting and engaging aspects are the martial arts-inspired fight sequences, the dive into Chinese folklore, and the mythological references, even if the fights are not the stereotypical kung-fu battles, but a blend of several techniques that have roots in China.

Each episode draws a parallel between Jin’s daily life concerns, his parents’ disputes, and the troubles he gets into in school – with Wei-Chen’s quest for the search of a relic that may bring the conflict in heaven to an end before the war ever commences the focal point. And in this parallel lies the allegory regarding Asian representation in the States and Chinese mythology, which comes forth brilliantly through the charismatic chemistry between Ben Wang and Jimmy Liu.

However, Disney’s adaptation of the source material falls short of depicting the surrealism of the book’s illustrations. There are areas where it touch upon casual stereotypes, such as when a close friend of Jin casually mocks him over a viral meme associated with Chinese names. Or, when Huy Quan – who plays a former television actor who had fallen prey to racial sarcasm in his stint on a sitcom in the 90s – adds up to the subtexts and themes as he describes the pitfalls of being an actor of Asian ancestry in Hollywood. However, these elements are vague and don’t leave the desired impression.

The biggest concern facing American Born Chinese is that it leaves too many hints for the first few episodes, and only unravels a little of the dynamic between Jin and Wei-Chen. The subplot of Wei-Chen’s quest to stop a dreaded war for heaven, the movement against Asian hate, and Jin’s coming-of-age mix up are in a narrative struggle for the first three installments. The fourth adapts the style of 70s Chinese comedy shows, depicting a flashback serving the roots of the folklore, but it’s not until the fifth chapter that the storyline truly starts taking shape.

There are other moments, such as one between EEAAO duo Stephanie Hsu and Michelle Yeoh, that you’ll love, and Daniel Wu’s Sun Wukong makes up for an excellent fatherly figure. Still, in the flashback episode, he isn’t proactive enough to formulate a strong lead, thus diminishing the backstory’s presentation. Leonard Wu’s Niu Mowang, aka Bull Demon, also fails to imitate a dynamic with Wukong in the flashback. In contrast, he hardly has much screentime in the show’s linear story at all.

The season finale leaves the audience with the best combat of the series, and a wholesome teen drama that will appeal to many. Shot in a school ground and presented as a disguised stage play, it combines Jin’s coming-of-age with the mystical plot, giving some meaning to his character and Wei-Chen’s journey. On the other side of the coin, besides the occasional action and extended cameos from a fantastic star cast, the rest of the series has little to convey.

Disney has played cleverly with American Born Chinese. The studio has recruited a top-tier cast and then given them the thematic framework of the graphic novel to play with, while having talents like Wang and Liu navigate the core dramedy of the plot. Hence, it successfully recognizes its responsibility to the audience, but can’t portray the source’s art at its best. Therefore, American Born Chinese is quite incisive at moments, but could be more convincing.


Studded with a famous cast and some fresh new talent, ‘American Born Chinese’ adds layers of subtext supporting Asian representation in the United States, but can’t deliver the same satisfying storyline as its source material.

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