American Born Chinese the Disney+ adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s celebrated graphic novel, captivates audiences with its blend of identity exploration, mythology, and heartfelt storytelling. With a stellar cast and a team of talented storytellers and filmmakers, this series offers a visually stunning and emotionally resonant experience that delivers a vibrant and exciting show that explores the American high school journey from an immigrant’s point of view. The balance between this story and the world set in the clouds can feel unevenly balanced at times, but it is charming enough to make it work and deliver a solid season.
The show features an impressive ensemble, including standout performances by Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, whose previous Oscar-winning roles elevate their characters in this adaptation. Stephanie Hsu, Ronny Chieng, Jimmy O. Yang, Poppy Liu, and James Hong also deliver noteworthy appearances. However, the true heart of the series lies in the remarkable chemistry between the lead duo, Ben Wang and Jim Liu. Their bond, rooted in their shared Asian-American identity and love for mythical tales, anchors the show and ensures that the grandiose concepts never overshadow the relatable coming-of-age themes.
“American Born Chinese” weaves together sci-fi elements with Chinese mythology, drawing inspiration from gods like the Monkey King and the Jade Emperor. The show masterfully utilizes these deities as metaphors for community, acceptance, and self-discovery through the eyes of the two breakout teenage protagonists. This authenticity is achieved through the inclusion of multiple Asian voices in the writers’ room, including series creator Kelvin Yu, Vali Chandrasekaran from “30 Rock,” and Charles Yu from “Legion.” Directors Lucy Liu and Destin Daniel Cretton contribute their expertise, enhancing the show’s fast-paced action sequences with their respective talents.
At the centre of the story is Jin Wang, a Chinese American high schooler facing numerous challenges. From unrequited love to his parents’ marital struggles, Jin’s journey of self-discovery is both relatable and compelling. When he befriends Wei-Chen, a new student who happens to be the son of the Monkey King, their lives intertwine as they embark on a mission to save Heaven from an uprising led by the Bull Demon. Throughout their ups and downs, the series effectively portrays a genuine and nuanced friendship between the two characters, striking a balance between YA fantasy and grounded drama.
Visually the series balances the high school experience with hallways, classrooms and fluorescent light-filled lunch rooms against the pillowy haze of the Cloud world. These striking visuals combined with the well-choreographed kung-fu scenes provide a rich palette for this show. The brilliant use of prosthetics and going practical were possible work to the show’s advantage. The use of CGI is only used when absolutely necessary helps to retain the authentic high school environment and for the fantasy elements to blend in seamlessly with this world.
While “American Born Chinese” excels in its character-driven storytelling, it occasionally fails to fully realise the circumstances around the uprising and explore the motives of the Bull Demon. The rebellion doesn’t do enough explaining their history, objectives and why they are doing what they are doing, this all leads to an episode set in the clouds that feels somewhat forced into the narrative. However, the show manages to keep the emotional stakes high through the portrayal of Jin’s parents, Christine and Simon, and Quan’s exploration of Asian representation in Hollywood. These sincere moments elevate the series and add a layer of depth to the overall narrative.
American Born Chinese emerges as a wholesome and entertaining TV show that surpasses expectations. By subtly addressing issues of identity and acceptance, the series goes beyond stereotypes without directly confronting or acknowledging them. It offers a vibrant and inclusive viewing experience that celebrates individuality and belonging. With its beautiful visuals, inclusive storytelling, and memorable characters, American Born Chinese is a worthy adaptation that leaves a lasting impact.
American Born Chinese is available to stream on Disney + from May 24.
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