Behind an awesome ensemble cast, American Born Chinese on Disney+ is packed with heart, action, and has a fantastically written and relatable story.
I had no expectations for American Born Chinese going in. The only things I knew about the series were that it was based on a graphic novel, featured a number of actors from 2022’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, and that Director Destin Daniel Cretton was involved.
My thought process was that the series had potential and would be an interesting watch. As it turns out, I adored American Born Chinese even more than I thought that I could. This series blends so many elements and genres together that it should not be able to work at all. There’s action, drama, comedy, and solid commentary on several topics. It is also just a total blast from beginning to end. The first episode is one of the most well-crafted pilots I have watched in recent memory. It introduces most of the main players and sets up an intriguing mystery and narrative that will make you want to continue watching.
American Born Chinese centers on Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a normal teenager balancing high school and home life. When he meets a foreign exchange student named Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), Jin unexpectedly finds himself entangled in a battle of Chinese mythological gods.
While watching, and enjoying every episode, I could not help but think how a younger version of myself would have made this series his entire personality. I could relate to Jin and his journey in a few ways. He is awkwardly trying to find his place in high school but his struggle to fit in can really fit with people of all ages and backgrounds. This story told in American Born Chinese is all about Jin figuring out who he is and who he wants to be, and that goes beyond the walls of high school. The narrative touches on what it means to be a hero, as well as issues of identity, culture, and family.
Jin’s journey in American Born Chinese is great and I enjoyed how much our main characters helped him grow while also having their own individual character arcs. His parents are incredibly connected to Jin’s arc for example, but we spend time with both Simon (Chin Han) and Christine Wang (Yeo Yann Yann) and see what their lives are like. Their arcs also touch on issues that adults may be dealing with or could have experienced in the past as well.
This narrative is a genre hopping, action packed adventure. We get to see some killer action sequences and cool moments throughout the eight episodes of American Born Chinese. All the directors crafted unique Kung fu filled/inspired sequences and they are exhilarating watches. The fights are brutal, and they clearly have had a lot of time out into them. Every episode is tightly written and extremely focused. I also never found myself bored at any point which is huge, even if I might not exactly be the target audience. In fact, I was eager to watch the next episode whenever the credits rolled.
After doing some reading, I noticed that they toned down a particular aspect of Jin’s character in American Born Chinese from the original graphic novel, in that Jin in the graphic novel has a desire to become Americanized. That is disappointing, but the story does touch on Jin’s desire to fit in and does have a huge coming of age aspect to it that works amazingly well. The theme of Americanization is still there within the show itself, but it is not as central to Jin’s character.
Instead of someone that wants to be Americanized, Jin is the underdog that wants to fit in, who does deal with cultural struggles, stereotypes, and the like. I suspect this was done to please audiences all around the world and honestly, it works. His character is beautifully written, and Ben Wang does an incredible job bringing Jin to life. In American Born Chinese, Wang makes Jin someone worth rooting for, but he also has his difficulties like any other person. Remember when I said that a younger me would have made this show his entire personality? Wang has moments as Jin that feel so authentic to the teenage experience that I felt myself flashing back to when I was in a similar position. His portrayal of the character is one that younger and older audiences will be able to see themselves in, and you will absolutely want to see his journey through to the end for a multitude of reasons.
Then you have Wei-Chen, who is such a compelling character in his own right, with Jimmy Liu giving a tremendous performance. Liu is so charming, and watching his character grow is a real treat. I was not sure how to feel about Wei-Chen at first, and I think that was intentional, but I grew to love him. Liu works hard to accurately portray him as a kid that like Jin, is trying to find his way, but Wei-Chen’s heart is always in the right place as he seeks to save his world and people.
The mystery of Wei-Chen and his quest to find the mystical fourth scroll will keep you hooked in. As you learn more about both throughout American Born Chinese, you will fall in love with this character and constantly be trying to figure out where the mystery is headed. Wei-Chen’s friendship with Jin is also a huge highlight. They are so much fun together, and it feels like we are watching a genuine friendship blossom on screen.
I did not know much about this mythology, but I never felt alienated by the writers because of it. They show and tell you everything you need to know without things feeling like endless exposition dumping. I must be honest; the way American Born Chinese was written made me enjoy learning about what are ultimately just a few pieces of the mythology.
Several gods and goddesses are depicted in American Born Chinese including Daniel Wu’s phenomenal Sun Wukong, also known as The Monkey King. For my money though, Michelle Yeoh’s Guanyin, the goddess of mercy is the best of the bunch. Yeoh is clearly having so much fun in her first outing after her Academy Award win and the character is given enough to do without taking too much of the spotlight from Jin and Wei-Chen. The boys are the true focus of American Born Chinese but that does not mean that Yeoh cannot help push their arcs forward as a mentor while having some standout moments of her own.
Speaking of following up an Academy Award winning performance, Ke Huy Quan is among the several cast members of Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) that appear in American Born Chinese. He portrays Freddy Wong, who was the star of a ’90s sitcom called Beyond Repair that is currently on the cusp of being rebooted. It is a very meta role for Ke Huy Quan (who of course portrayed Short Round in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) but he gives such a powerful performance that will tug at your heart and make you think. The journey that Freddy goes on is for me one of the most incredible and beautiful things in American Born Chinese. That Academy Award win was no fluke, folks. Ke Huy Quan is a force to be reckoned with and Hollywood is so much better with him around.
I could talk about the ensemble of American Born Chinese all day long, each member has their own moment to shine throughout the 8 episodes run. I love the way these characters are written but it takes talent to bring them to life and this cast has plenty of it. However, I want to take a moment to signal out Sydney Taylor. She plays Amelia, Jin’s classmate, and crush. Taylor captures that kind of cool, but slightly awkward teenage girl with what almost seems like ease. It is so easy for a teenage girl character to become a stereotype, but Taylor makes sure that does not happen with Amelia.
The character is very likable and fun but has layers to her that get pealed back as American Born Chinese progresses and the more we learn, the more compelling Amelia becomes. Taylor also has great chemistry with Ben Wang’s Jin and watching the pair interact was always heartwarming. I cannot wait to hopefully see more of Amelia in the future and cannot help but wonder if the role she plays in Jin’s journey will be expanded further.
One other thing I really loved about American Born Chinese and the story it told was exactly how audiences were relayed the dialogue in this narrative. Characters speak in both English and Mandarin, which was cool to me. There was a good balance of the use of both, which made things feel truer to life. This series also embraces so much of Chinese culture, even if some parts are already familiar to American audiences.
This series has clearly had a ton of work put into it, and everyone involved seems to have strived to make this adaptation the best it could be. That heart is reflected all over the place, from the acting to the writing, and direction. There are moments that left me in awe and thinking “How did they pull that off?”. American Born Chinese appears to be an expert in making you feel for its characters and delivering spectacular action.
If there is a particular issue the series has, it is that the CGI in American Born Chinese does not always look the best. Some of the sequences in the show’s version of Heaven in particular are really dubious and took me away from the story briefly. These CGI issues can also impact what are otherwise stellar fight sequences. There are a number of what look to be realistic looking practical effects such as prosthetics on certain characters though so that was interesting and cool.
American Born Chinese is outstanding, with a fantastic ensemble cast, breathtaking action, and an exceptional story that tackles so much. Even if it may seem far out of your wheelhouse and strange, I think you should give this Disney+ series a chance.
American Born Chinese will be streaming globally on Disney Plus from May 24, 2023.