Anyone with a soft spot for classic Chinese action, featuring characters gracefully soaring through trees while engaging in epic battles, will be instantly captivated by the opening moments of the 2023 Disney original series “American Born Chinese”. While the series opens in the realms of Gods, it quickly transitions to the rather mundane world of humans, where a teen boy is shopping for clothes with his mother. This shift perfectly encapsulates the essence of the series, as it constantly alternates between the fantastical and the ordinary. To be more specific, between heaven and high-school (a good enough synonym for hell).
It’s going to be really hard for fans of the graphic novel “American Born Chinese” to avoid comparing the live-action adaptation with Gene Luen Yang’s original source material. The series consists of eight episodes and is led by Ben Wang, who portrays Jin Wang, one of the primary protagonists. Jin is an ordinary high school student whose life takes a chaotic turn when Wei-Chan (played by Jimmy Liu), a new Chinese student, starts shadowing him at school and claims to be on a quest to quell an uprising against the Jade Emperor in heaven. Wei-Chan finds himself sought after by both his father, the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), and the malevolent Bull Demon (Leonard Wu), due to his possession of a powerful stolen staff.
While the cinematography in the series is vibrant, it falls slightly short of the breathtaking visuals one would expect from a fantasy-fiction story of this nature. The special effects also leave something to be desired, as do the costumes and makeup. In particular, the most anticipated scenes in the series, such as the celebration of the Immortal Peach in heaven by deities, lacked the spectacle and excitement it should have had. It looked like a comic-con after party for cosplayers, in-fact, comic-con usually has better dressed participants. In-fact, episode 4 is when the heavenly gathering takes place, setting the background for Monkey’s King history with the Bull demon, and it was one of the most boring edition in the entire show.
The cast of “American Born Chinese” is one of its biggest highlights, it reunites the actors who played beloved Wang family from the epic movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once”, all of them playing different unrelated characters, obviously. Michelle Yeoh portrays Goddess Guanyin, who serves as the guiding force for the young Wei-Chan in his quest. Stephanie Hsu makes a delightful cameo as Shiji, a banished deity from heaven who sells jewelry on earth. Ke Huy Quan takes on a rather intriguing role as a character featured in a racist 90s sitcom, with his significance becoming clear only towards the conclusion of the series. The parents of Jin Wang are given a significant subplot, showcasing their daily lives, conversations, and the challenges they face. Yann Yann Yeon and Chin Han plays the Wangs, and their portrayal offers an intriguing representation of the Asian-American experience.
Ironically, primary protagonist Jin Wang turned out to be the most unlikable character, the series creators make him a lot more selfish and self-centered than he was in the graphic novel. Jimmy Liu’s Wei-Chan is much more grounded, despite being a confident rebel son of a deity. There’s no faulting both the actors as they just do what the script demands of them, but more screen-time for Jimmy Liu would’ve been appreciated as the actor perfectly executed his action scenes. While some of the action sequences were absolutely thrilling, the climactic face-off was surprisingly lack-luster! But there was a decent amount of humor infused towards the end to make it fun.
All that being said, the series successfully maintains several key themes from the book, emphasizing the importance of family, friendship, conflicts, and self-discovery. “American Born Asian” manages to be a pretty entertaining series and ends with a little twist that leaves ample scope for a season two.
It’s a 7 on 10 from me. Stream the series on Disney Hotstar.