Being a teenager can feel like being at war. Navigating high-school hierarchies requires strategy and courage, knowing which battles to fight and when to back down.
For Jin Wang (Ben Wang), the goal is to win the war to be seen as normal, maybe get a modest spot at the cool kids’ table and maybe even go on a date or two. As a second generation Chinese American in a predominantly white environment, this is not without its additional difficulties. He thanks himself for telling schoolmates that his favorite band is South Korean boyband BTS and assuring them that it is okay to laugh at Asian American stereotypes on TV because the show is “sarcastic”. When a new Chinese student, Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), joins the school, the principal makes Jin responsible for him as she can see that they have “so much in common”.
Micro-aggressions aside, Wei-Chen’s arrival means that, along with being a Chinese American teen in a predominantly white town, he has to deal with the crumbling marriage of his parents, who are now Involved in a war being fought in the “heavenly realm”. , Wei Chen is, in fact, the son of the Monkey King, who has stolen his father’s magical staff and come to Earth to find a “guide” who appeared to him in a dream.
But the Heavenly Realm is in need of staff, as the Jade Emperor and his supporters, including the Monkey King, are battling a rebellion led by the Bull Demon. While there’s a lot to like about the show, including great chemistry between Wang and Liu and some fantastically acrobatic fight scenes, it’s clear how much less compelling the actual combat is in comparison to High School.
Much attention prior to the launch of American Born Chinese — an adaptation of the famous 2006 graphic novel by Jean Luen Yang — focused on reuniting the cast of Everything Everywhere All at Once. Michelle Yeoh is perfectly cast as Guanyin, the goddess of mercy who is a goddess at all times but hilarious in the real world, where she’s passing as human and has to go to Wei- to find her guide. Helping to find Chen. Yoh gets a chance to show off his fighting skills, but has just as much fun trying to assemble an Ikea coffee table, saying in his frustration: “I have alleviated the suffering of millions and calmed the oceans.” Have done – I will not give up on Swedish furniture.”
The rest of the Everything Everywhere All at Once crew has further minor roles. Fellow Oscar-winner Ke Hui Quan plays an actor whose career stalls after playing an infamously problematic Asian stereotype in a classic American sitcom. Stephanie Hsu is Shijie Niangniang, a cunning jeweler/demon, while James Hong is the Jade Emperor.
But the reunion has become too much. While each actor lights up the screen, the real stars of the show are Liu and Wang, who are charismatic and charming in every scene, selling the comedy with subtlety and precision. The bond they form and the strength they give each other as they navigate high school — and their dysfunctional families — is sweet and reassuring.
Episode four is an absolute riot. It serves as the bottle episode to tell the origins of the rivalry between the Monkey King and the Bull Demon. It’s filmed and performed in insanely silly sitcom style, where a Heavenly Realm office party goes horribly wrong and is complete with its own funky theme song (“She’s just looking for a monkey. Tonight she Gotta get funky, it’s time to show off”). and comes on stage to say: “I want to say something to my wife… I never loved you.”
Unfortunately, every other trip to the heavenly realm is a blink. The CGI is laptop-screensaver level and the fight sequences feel light and unimportant. The stakes are too vague and it’s almost impossible to care much about the outcome of a rebellion that is talked about but never really portrayed. The appearances of some of the mythical creatures resemble cheap Halloween masks, most notably the Bull Demon’s true face, which is strangely unconvincing and only serves episode four’s camp fun.
In its final act, the various threads of narrative are strung together effectively but culminate in the kind of unimaginable superhero-exploding-stuff-at-each-other that ends most Marvel movies and for which There is less thrilling than exciting discovery. Join and get accepted by his high school football team. It’s no task to sit through eight 30-minute episodes that shimmer with energy and pizzazz. But what’s most exciting is considering all the great movies, shows, and performances that Liu and Wang are sure to make.
American Born Chinese is on Disney+