‘American Born Chinese’ Review: A sweet teen odyssey with killer moves
Ben Wang stars as an aspiring normal teenager in writer Kelvin Yu and director Destin Daniel Cretton’s fantastic journey.
What does it mean to be a hero? In a Disney show or movie, that usually means superpowers, suits, or more rings—outer vectors of the inner chivalry that’s been there all along. It’s the kind of heroism that pops up in Marvel, Star Wars, and many other Disney features and series, and it fuels Kelvin Yu’s “American Born Chinese,” based on Gene Luen Yang’s comic book.
The series begins with a frightening cover detailing the ongoing war in heaven: The Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) wants to destabilize the Jade Emperor, but the Monkey King (Daniel Wu) defends the throne with his magical staff. jingo boom – which disappeared. The Monkey King chases the thief through the heavenly realm in the first scene, full of the lush visuals and clever action Cretton employed in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
But after a preview of dense setup and dazzling action, “American Born Chinese” settles into its main course, the everyday life of one Jin Wang (Ben Wang). Jin wants to be Normaland where so many similar stories confuse normal with white, this is not the case—at least not explicitly.
Jin wants to play soccer and get a girlfriend, but not at the cost of his culture, his stupid friends, or his identity. Wang deftly portrays the uneasy uncertainty of adolescence in every interaction Jin has, never losing a healthy dose of skepticism or thirst for honesty as his divine mission begins to unfold.
That mission comes in the form of new disciple Wei-Chen (an excellent Jim Liu), son of the Monkey King, who seeks refuge and guidance on Earth. Liu is arrestingly, often comically serious, making the switch to set fight sequences all the more satisfying – and he’s just the pinnacle of a fine ensemble.
Early trailers have hyped the big-screen reunion of Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu and James Hong for “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” but the cast is all Asian excellence. Yeo Yann Yann gives a moving performance as Jin’s mother, involved and encouraging but never overbearing and always humorous. Yeoh is clearly enjoying himself, now a master of absurd action, just like Ronny Chieng after stealing scenes in ‘M3GAN’. Quan’s story leaves a huge impression as it unfolds separately from the others, its purpose remaining hidden until the last hours.
What immediately strikes one about “American-born Chinese” is that quality — a show uniquely at the intersection of Disney’s superhero action empire, children’s and teen programming, and prestige projects represented on other platforms, such as Lee Sung Jin’s “Beef.”
In Yu’s hands, the series is never burdened by various influences and genres. Nothing is gimmicky, the writing is rooted in reality as it deals with the clash of gods and demons. The word “race” comes up more than once, but it affects Jin’s existence in ways that any minority will relate to, from seemingly innocuous comments to well-intentioned authority figures to the pervasive meme that unexpectedly gets under his skin. The writers tread the well-worn terrain of high school – the elusive lover, the coveted parties, athletes and nerds – in such a way that the experience is both fresh and authentic.
Cretton punctuates the fight scenes with fast, nimble movements of the actors and camera that propel each action sequence forward. There is little blood and no gruesome injuries, one indicator that this is a family show; Because as wholesome as “American Born Chinese” is, it doesn’t speak to any part of the audience the way many shows aimed at children and teenagers do. There are occasional allusions—the polished language, the high school party where Jin…stuffs hot dogs—but the show doesn’t suffer from increasing its appeal. After eight episodes, the “normal” moments stay with viewers long after the final battle.
All episodes of “American Born Chinese” will debut on Disney+ on May 24.
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