Plots aside, there is a specificity in the writing that truly feels like this comes from a singular vision instead of your cookie-cutter high school shows
American Born Chinese review by Jennifer AJ
In this Disney+ series, a socially awkward Chinese-American high schooler is suddenly thrown into the midst of a celestial battle between the deities of ancient Chinese mythology. The series is an adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel of the same name. It incorporates characters and lores from the Chinese classic tale Journey to the West peppered with his own experience growing up in the 1990s.
Jin Wang (Ben Wang) is a shy 10th grader from a Taiwanese immigrant family. Due to his lack of self-confidence, Jin prefers to just blend in as a nobody despite yearning to achieve more. All that changes when a new student called Wei Chen (Jimmy Liu) arrives. To his dismay, Jin is assigned to be Wei Chen’s companion simply because they’re both Asians. Wei Chen’s outspoken nature annoys Jin, who’s used to people-pleasing his way. Unbeknownst to him, Wei Chen is actually no ordinary student: he’s the son of the Monkey King Sun Wu Kong (Daniel Wu), currently on the run after stealing his father’s magical staff. Eventually, his arrival will drag Jin into the brewing battle of good and evil between the celestial gods of ancient Chinese folklore.
Part fantasy adventure, part coming-of-age tale, American Born Chinese fuses familiar elements from both genres to fashion a sort of Asian-flavoured superhero origin story. One half of the story is about Jin navigating the perils of growing up, the other half is about Wei Chen attempting to break free of his father’s shadow and save the world on his own accord. The parallel storylines seem at first like two different shows in one, though it quickly blends in nicely with cohesive themes tying them together.
The directing and writing are surprisingly more mature than most Disney teen series. Instead of typical cheesiness found in other Mouse House shows, American Born Chinese feels like a Disney show with some indie sensibility. The visuals radiate A24 indie vibe rather than Disney, with interesting shot compositions, clever match cuts and moody colour palette. The score is fantastic. There are no cutesy dialogues to be found, just really down-to-earth conversations that actually resemble how real people talk. On the fantasy front, it’s actually pretty inventive too: the gorgeous visualization of the red forest in Wei Chen’s homeworld, the cool fight scenes, the subtle symbolisms spread through the series.
And the star-studded ensemble cast! It’s no exaggeration to say they’d exported the cast of Everything Everywhere All At Once wholesale. Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, James Hong - they’re all here to lend a helping hand to the young cast alongside charismatic Daniel Wu as the famed Monkey King. The two male leads are unfortunately very green and it shows; thankfully they’re saved by the engaging script.
Plots aside, there is a specificity in the writing that truly feels like this comes from a singular vision instead of your cookie-cutter high school shows. Series-creator Kelvin Yu’s depiction of the Asian-American experiences manages to avoid the stereotypical easy route. It delivers some moral messages without resorting to predictability, suggesting the makers understand the nuances of its subject matters. Early on, there’s an exchange between Jin and a schoolmate about speaking up against the casual racism he just experienced. The two disagree on their stances but are able to respect each other’s choices - that rarely happens anymore in modern shows, let alone a Disney one. Likewise, the portrayal of high school life actually feels relatable: the angst, the mini daily struggles, the embarrassment. In most teen shows, parents' storylines are usually so redundant it feels like a waste of airtime, but the one told here actually has an ample emotional resonance. That’s why, despite the fun fantasy plot elements, it’s the relatable characters that eventually elevate this series.
Published on June 19th, 2023. Written by Jennifer Ariesta for Television Heaven.