It’s impossible to miss the look of dread on high schooler Jin Wang’s face in Disney+’s new YA-action series American Born Chinese, when a teacher assigns him a new student from China as a “shadow.” Although the instructor insists that he and new student Wei-Chen have “so much in common,” Jin can’t stop himself from asking, “We do?”
The teacher doesn’t hear him. Then again, who does? Our reluctant protagonist has all the classic desires of a high schooler: make the team (in this case, soccer), get the girl (Amelia), and make a name for himself. Jin’s mother would love for him (and his father, for that matter) to speak up for themselves. But this freshly minted tenth grader struggles to reconcile those desires with the box his white classmates always seem to paint around him.
Jin wants to assimilate so badly that never considers the one thing he and Wei-Chen clearly have in common from the start: even faculty can’t be bothered to pronounce their names right. Instead, Jin immediately rejects his “shadow,” whose complete lack of shame seems to baffle and intimidate him in equal measure.
American Born Chinese, which debuts Wednesday on the streaming service, plays with many classic hallmarks of the first-generation coming-of-age story—from laughing off offensive “jokes,” to constantly deciding which parts of his identity are fit for public consumption among his white peers. In Jin’s mind, his choice seems binary: either edit himself down and be popular, or let everyone see who he is and get shunned. Luckily, the Disney+ series finds a force even stronger than high school popularity to help Jin see through his conformist haze: Michelle Yeoh.
Well, not quite—but kind of! Like the graphic novel it adapts from author Gene Luen Yang, the eight-episode series blends the mundane and the extraordinary for an inter-dimensional lesson. Wei-Chen, played with guts and gusto by Jimmy Liu, is more than your average manga obsessive; he’s also a warrior and son of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu), whose epic quest rests on Jin’s shoulders. Convinced by a prophetic dream, Wei-Chen has come to Earth (with Yeoh, the Goddess of Mercy, in tow) to find Jin and rescue the Heavenly Realm from a cataclysmic uprising.
First, however, Jin has soccer try-outs. Then, he’s gotta make up with the longtime friend he left hanging out to dry when his soccer pals humiliated him. And then, he still needs to chase after Amelia. Wei-Chen might be determined to save Heaven, but his guide is pretty set on his ways here on Earth. It’ll take a fair amount of time (and brain-melting encounters) to tear him away from these terrestrial fixations.
Published in 2006, American Born Chinese unravels in three storylines that converge. The first, a contemporary retelling of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, follows the “Monkey King”—who, unhappy with himself as a monkey, progressively works to shift into human form. The second follows Jin as his family relocates from Chinatown in San Francisco to a white suburb where he’s one of only a couple of Asian American students.
Like the Monkey King, Jin supernaturally manages to transform into his own aspirational self—a white teenager. And the book’s third storyline follows this Caucasian teen, whom Jin names “Danny,” as readers discover that the stereotypically “Chinese” cousin who visits Danny each year is actually none other than the Monkey King himself, now desperate to convince Jin to accept himself for who he is.
American Born Chinese blends these three stories, albeit in collapsed form with some of its sharpest teeth removed. That said, the show’s incredible cast, stunning martial arts sequences, and gorgeous production are instantly compelling. (Even if the shape-shifting warriors look a little like animorphs in the beginning.)
Ben Wang perfectly embodies both the shrinking awkwardness of teenagerdom and the discombobulating emotional turmoil that usually underlies it. His quiet sensitivity also belies his comedic timing, both physical and verbal—a lethal combination that makes it impossible to root against his character, no matter how sullen he can be. Liu’s Wei-Chen, meanwhile, is both determined and strikingly empathetic. He’s also a marvel during the show’s many martial arts scenes—including one in the school’s kitchen against a man with a pig face.
Yeoh seems to be having a blast playing an interdimensional deity who chooses to hang out in an earthbound apartment building, advise Wei-Chen on his quest, and assemble IKEA furniture for a while. (Also, it must be said: Her Heavenly wardrobe is just stunnin’.) And then there’s the rest of the show’s superstar cast and crew, which includes Yeoh’s Everything Everywhere All at Once castmates Ke Huy Quan (sending up the kinds of stereotypical roles that initially eroded his Hollywood career) and Stephanie Hsu, as well as Singaporean megastar Chin Han. Lucy Liu even showed up to direct.
As isolated as Jin might feel at the start of American Born Chinese, the series that contains him feels almost universal in its appeal. It’s charming without being treacly, funny and also sensitive—and, like many wuxia films, its action comes with an equal measure of thoughtfulness. By the end, our shrinking protagonist becomes impossible to forget.
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