tv review

Universes Collide in American Born Chinese

Photo: Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

For the most part, Jin Wang is a typical high-school kid. He’s curated a solid manga collection, aspires to join the soccer team, and is deep into the mumbling phase that comes with figuring out who you’re going to be. When we first meet Jin, played by a winning Ben Wang, he’s about to start tenth grade and finds himself ensconced in an age-old teenage ritual: shopping for clothes with his mother, whose picks give him something to chafe against in his search for his own identity. His parents, Christine and Simon (Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han), are dealing with identity crises of their own: Both Chinese immigrants in California, the two have entered middle age and are, to varying extents, grappling with frustrations over their own lost youth. So far, so coming-of-age family drama, and when Disney+’s new American Born Chinese operates in that mode, it’s a pleasure to watch, uncommonly observant and tender in its take on growing up a first-generation immigrant. Which makes it even more of a shame when the whole thing gets buried under layers of tiresome, Marvelized nonsense.

Jin’s world gets shaken up with the arrival of Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), the new kid in school who, unlike Jin, didn’t grow up in America, and whose way of being draws out a sharp racial aspect to Jin’s teenage anxieties. A rich contrast forms between Jin’s self-doubt and Wei-Chen’s self-confidence, the former arising from the dislocation of growing up in a culture that doesn’t necessarily feel like his own, and the latter from being a kid raised in a world that was his own. Jin is drawn to Wei-Chen’s loud and open nature, but he feels ashamed at times to be associated with Wei-Chen’s otherness.

As it turns out, that otherness is twofold: Wei-Chen happens to be the son of Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu), also known as the Monkey King, a key figure in Journey to the West, which, very broadly speaking, is to Chinese literature what Arthurian legend is to western letters. Wei-Chen is embroiled in a huge celestial conflict involving a plot to overthrow Heaven, and he has arrived in earthly California against his father’s wishes to search for something called the Fourth Scroll that could turn the tides. Jin factors into these machinations because Wei-Chen, convinced by a prophetic dream, believes the ordinary teenager is meant to be his guide to this MacGuffin.

Being a first-generation immigrant, Jin’s story is fundamentally about being the sum of two universes colliding — only in this case, one of those happens to be a Heaven in crisis. The premise of the celestial conflict is pretty metal — “You and I both know that Heaven is a broken system far beyond repair,” the antagonist says at one point — but the show mostly keeps the intricacies of that political intrigue off-screen. In truth, it’s just a staging device for the fantastical goings-on in American Born Chinese, which are interesting enough, though anyone who grew up around Chinese iconography may find it mildly traumatizing to see Journey to the West processed through the Disney IP–ification machine. There’s even an exposition dump that visually renders the MacGuffin in a manner unsettlingly reminiscent of the MCU’s Infinity Stones.

Created by Bob’s Burgers writer Kelvin Yu with a team that includes his brother Charles Yu, who wrote the novel Interior Chinatown, and Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the 2013 indie Short Term 12, the show is based on Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel of the same name. It’s a fairly loose adaptation, in that this version jettisons much of the source material’s bolder narrative ideas in favor of a more conventional story that recalls anything from E.T. to Stranger Things. Part of what made Yang’s graphic novel so striking was how it tackled the spiritual violence embedded in Jin’s struggle to accept his ethnic identity; one of its more remarkable aspects includes a turn where Jin, working through the social politics of crushing on a white girl, leans into the impulse of racial self-annihilation and reconceptualizes himself as white. Gone are those cutting edges in this adaptation, which largely plays down those interior battlegrounds of assimilation in order to place its political emphasis on the need for better Asian representation in mainstream media.

That trade-off primarily manifests through Ke Huy Quan’s Jamie Yao, an actor who, within the universe of the show, played a caricatured Asian character on a ’90s sitcom called Beyond Repair that takes on new life when it reemerges as a social-media meme. American Born Chinese is at its most heavy-handed in this subplot, layering Quan’s scenes into the narrative in a disjointed way that doesn’t quite interact with the main plot. The whole thing is clearly an attempt to portray how caricatured media representations have downstream effects on the people who possess those identities being caricatured — at various points in the story, we see Jin watching the sitcom on TV, which later seeps into his subconscious — and Quan’s scenes culminate in a moment that functionally serves as an extension of his awards-speech circuit during the last Oscar cycle. But while the intent is noble, within the context of a Disney product, it carries more than a whiff of self-congratulation. More to the point, one begins to desire more from the message, some acknowledgment of the complex and shifting terrain of Asian American identity in pop culture. What does it really mean for the fictional Beyond Repair to regain power in a cultural universe that presumably also includes the existence of Hong Kong cinema, BTS, and Cretton’s own Shang-Chi, for that matter?

In fairness, American Born Chinese quietly reflects some of that complexity through its casting. It’s notable that the American Ben Wang is surrounded by a cast that’s distinctly fluid and expansive in nationality: Jim Liu is Taiwanese; Yeo Yann Yann is Malaysian; Chin Han is a Singaporean actor with a long history of Hollywood roles; Daniel Wu is an American-born actor who built a robust career in Hong Kong cinema. There’s also some symbolism — and fun — in how the show doubles as an Everything Everywhere All at Once mini-reunion. It’s great to see Quan on-screen again so soon. Michelle Yeoh, now firmly in her grab-the-bag era, features prominently as Guanyin, the goddess of mercy guiding Wei-Chen through his quest. Even Stephanie Hsu pops up in one episode, where she proceeds to feast on the show’s entire scenery. But it’s frustrating how the power of that plurality is mostly kept to metatext; whatever may be thematically potent about situating Jin’s identity conflict in the space between Asian America and the land of his forebears is never truly realized.

The show isn’t without power — it simply has too much talent involved to not be eminently watchable. There’s also a sense of inventiveness in places: One mid-season episode in particular renders the classical Chinese depiction of Heaven so enthusiastically it’s hard not to be swept up by the imagery. It’s just that little about it feels substantial: It’s too safe to be genuinely groundbreaking and too mired in the task of setting up potential IP to tell much of a coherent story. By the end, whatever feels distinct about American Born Chinese, which primarily resides in the quotidian details of Jin and his family’s life, washes away in a blur of scrolls, rebellions, and tacked-on endgame stakes. It feels like a vibrant coming-of-age story, spun out of edgier source material, that’s been made to conform to the needs of the Disney machine — a dynamic that sounds suspiciously like its own form of assimilation.

All eight episodes of American Born Chinese stream on Disney+ beginning Wednesday, May 24.

Universes Collide in American Born Chinese