‘a hugely entertaining action-comedy drama that manages to combine some good action, some good comedy, and some good drama’
Review by John Winterson Richards
It is a sign of how things are changing that Michelle Yeoh's first major project after winning her Best Actress Oscar was the leading role in a television show, The Brothers Sun on Netflix. Her involvement was announced months before her Award, but this would still have been unthinkable not so long ago when there was a clear demarcation between television stars and film stars, and it was assumed that overexposure on the small screen would undermine the glamour associated with leading men and women on the big screen.
It is also a sign of the times that an American show with East Asian themes, and a principal cast that is almost entirely East Asian or of East Asian origin, should have such a high mainstream profile. With Hollywood floundering in 2023, Japan, South Korea, and, to an extent, China, or rather Hong Kong, are where energy, craftsmanship, and innovation are now to be found. Toward the end of a year memorable for a string of very expensive MCU and DCEU box office flops in the cinema, Godzilla Minus One roared in from Japan to show the West how epic science fiction/fantasy should be done, and on a fraction of the budget. Meanwhile, on television, a large number of imports from South Korea, following in the footsteps of Squid Game and Extraordinary Attorney Woo, helped power Netflix to a predictable victory in the streaming wars, while One Piece, a fairly close Netflix adaptation of a Japanese manga "comic book" and anime television show, was a further demonstration of how East Asia now delivers storytelling quality as well as quantity. The cultural centre of gravity seems to be crossing the Pacific.
Netflix had already made a distinctively Chinese action show set principally in the United States, Wu Assassins: it demonstrated some potential, which was subsequently thrown away in an inferior feature length television-film, Fistful of Vengeance that ignored much of what had gone before. The Brothers Sun has a similar set up, involving Triads and East Asian Americans with interests on both sides of the Pacific, but avoided the supernatural elements that were a major element in Wu Assassins and made the wise decision to keep its tongue visibly in its cheek where Wu Assassins had usually at least pretended to be serious.
The tone is set by an electric first episode which begins with a brutal, fast paced kung fu battle against multiple opponents intercut with The Great British Bake Off - honestly - and ends with a darkly comic scene in which the world's most practical mother is completely unfazed at having to get rid of a body.
That opening battle/bake off actually sums up one of the main themes of the show, the conflict in the soul of Charles Sun, the heir to a Triad boss based in Taiwan and a spectacularly effective assassin in his own right who happens to find calm in cooking. When his father is shot, Charles flies to Los Angeles to ensure the safety of his mother and younger brother, who both left Taiwan about a decade before. At least that is the pretext he is given. It is obvious that the hot headed Charles is Sonny Corleone in this situation and his father's consigliere wants him elsewhere.
Meanwhile, in LA a handsome young Chinese man steps out of an expensive sports car to a very friendly greeting from a woman who could easily be a model. We see where this is going - two supercool brothers are obviously going to team up to take on the bad guys. Not for the last time, The Brothers Sun misdirects us completely.
Charles' younger brother, Bruce, is in fact a dorky student, the complete antithesis to Charles. Despite his name, evocative of Bruce Lee, Bruce is passive, wholly untrained in martial arts, and dominated by his formidable mother, Eileen (Yeoh, of course). Although apparently intelligent in the academic sense, he is totally devoid of street smarts - so devoid in fact that he seeks the advice of his drug dealer friend TK, who is actually almost as clueless as Bruce himself.
Eileen is the classic "helicopter" mother, hovering over every aspect of her younger son's life. She is forcing him to go to Medical School, more to increase her own status among the "aunties," her fellow Chinese matriarchs, than for his own benefit, ignoring his own desires. Like Charles, Bruce nurses a secret passion, but while there is something strangely stylish about a skilled hit man who is also a skilled baker, there is nothing remotely cool about Bruce's addiction to "improv." He is supposed to be quite good at it, but the writers are wise not to attempt to demonstrate this. Improvisation is an exception to the rule "Show, Don't Tell."
To a certain extent, the show goes in the obvious direction of letting these two very different brothers learn from each other. Charles thinks his brother needs to toughen up, but his success in this regard is limited. At the same time he uses his time in LA to explore a side of himself of which he was barely aware and wonder if his path is necessarily fixed. In the end, both brothers remain essentially who they are, which seems far more credible than any forced attempt to have them turn into each other.
Given that she is played by Michelle Yeoh, it is only to be expected that the most interesting character in The Brothers Sun is neither of the Brothers themselves but their mother. She appears frighteningly competent in everything she does. This is a woman who can say that she is never wrong without the slightest hint of irony or false humility. She means it and, while events prove that not even she is infallible, she does tend to be right about almost everything in accordance with maternal tradition. The complete control she exerts over her younger son, and increasingly her older son too, seems to apply to every situation, even Triad high politics. We gradually find out a lot more about her, and her very unconventional marriage to a Triad boss, and it is no surprise that, while she really is the archetypal Chinese mother, there is also a lot more to her than that.
For all the humour and the violence, The Brothers Sun is structured as a credible family drama. We see how the Brothers are influenced by each other, and how each is influenced in turn by both of their parents and how they are struggling to find out who they are beneath all these influences. We also see glimpses of a long running power struggle between Eileen and her husband with their children becoming another battleground in their conflict.
That said, the humour and the violence are what provide most of the entertainment. Both are handled expertly. There is not too much of either and neither is allowed to go on too long. It is something of a relief that fights are not extended needlessly and "banter" is kept to where it is appropriate. Dark humour is a difficult balancing act and The Brothers Sun gets very dark in places - characters we have come to know, and perhaps like, die horribly - but on the whole the tone remains reasonably consistent, even if it is far from perfect.
Although he does not appear in person, John Cho deserves a Special Golden Globe for Being A Good Sport. At one point the characters hole up in his supposed luxury mansion and it is a great running gag how his image keeps appearing everywhere. Apparently, this was done with his consent and co-operation.
Among the actual cast, Yeoh dominates as much as her character. This is only to be expected since this is essentially her show and she is the best reason to watch it. Her Oscar winning performance in Everything Everywhere All At Once showcased a gift for comedy that may not have been obvious in much of her earlier work and she seems to enjoy building on it here. Yet that should not detract from what remains at heart a convincing dramatic portrait of a genuinely strong woman fighting to assert herself in both her family life and what might be termed her business life.
Apart from Ron Yuan, a familiar face, if not necessarily a familiar name, from a number of projects, here playing a rival Triad boss, most of the rest of the cast are relatively unknown - one must assume that Yeoh's salary took a hefty slice of the budget - but collectively they do a fine job. Justin Chien is definitely the break-out star as Charles, generally playing the straight man straight, and displaying all the effortless magnetism of the Hong Kong greats, while still leaving room for a bit of humour and character development. It is not Sam Song Li's fault but the writers' that Bruce is less developed: we are told he is intelligent, but he does not seem to grasp the seriousness of the new situation in which he finds himself and he makes some spectacularly bad decisions; he can come across as annoyingly childish, which is perhaps to be expected given his upbringing. Johnny Kou does a lot with a little time as the brothers’ manipulative and Machiavellian father. British actress Alice Hewkin seems to relish the challenge of playing very different twin sisters. Jenny Yang and Jon Xue Zhang make a nice double act as henchmen.
Together they deliver a hugely entertaining action-comedy drama that manages to combine some good action, some good comedy, and some good drama. It is a very rare achievement to succeed in all three as well as The Brothers Sun. If there are weaknesses it is in the plotting. There are plotlines that seem to go nowhere or which are forgotten for long periods, like Bruce having to find his university tuition fees on a tight deadline after blowing the money his mother gave him on "improv" classes. There are also a lot of holes in the story and character decisions that make little sense.
To be honest, and this is a long-term fan being frank about something he loves, poor plotting is a traditional weakness in the East Asian action genre, despite some honourable exceptions, and so it is perhaps to be expected in what is essentially an American based entry into that genre. As such, The Brothers Sun is no worse than many of its acknowledged classics. Since it seems to be a deliberate tribute to those classics, there is no greater commendation of the show than to say that it bears comparison with the best of them.
Published on February 9th, 2024. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.