Based on the novel by Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese is an unusually fun series with a blend of comedy and kung fu on Disney+. The first season weaves together multiple storylines that result in satisfying payoffs towards the latter half of the eight episode season. The quality of both production and storytelling made it a fitting release on a streaming service with all episodes available to watch on day one. Let’s go over this first season and hope they decide to renew for a second!
[Warning: Light Spoilers and Impressions from American Born Chinese are below!]
Journey to the West
A refreshing take on this storyline is that for once, we don’t rely on our main hero to do everything to save the day. While Jin Wang (Ben Wang) is the one sought out by Wie-Chen (Jimmy Liu), it’s not up to Jin to fight to save the day. American Born Chinese did a marvelous job in balancing both portions of the day-to-day and the fantastical parts of both Heaven and Earth.
Even though Sun Wukong/The Monkey King (Daniel Wu) is practically immortal and has amazing powers, he still struggles with being a father to Wie-Chen. As always, the forces of good and evil are at war and the stakes are never higher. The Niu Mowang/Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) seeks the famous staff that belongs to Sun, but Wie-Chen has stolen it and ran off to Earth to hide.
Wie-Chen is in search of a Fourth Scroll to help save Heaven and he believes it’s Jin who will lead him to it. Jin is very reluctant at first but is later encouraged by a surprising character I’ll mention later on. Helping Wie-Chen the entire season is Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy (Michelle Yeoh) a Guardian to him, that keeps Sun Wukong at bay while they search for the Fourth Scroll.
American Born Chinese is all about family
Jin’s family weaves themselves into saving both worlds due to a pendant owned by the parents, Christine and Simon Wang (Yeo Yann Yann, Chin Han). While they go through the standard woes of marriage, it’s neatly tied into the story of Wie-Chen’s quest. Simon’s reluctance in securing a promotion and Christine’s initially reserved attitude manifest in Jin and it’s his realization that is a beautiful breakthrough at the end of the season. Beyond Jin’s personal journey, it’s the one the parents also take together that was the most satisfying to watch.
Sun and Wie-Chen’s relationship is another obvious exploration that had to happen and it’s a little less developed. Sun is obviously disappointed in his son for stealing his staff but his passiveness in regards to punishment makes it seem like he’s not nearly as angry as he’s portraying. Perhaps it’s whole being around for thousands of years, as he was quite carefree in the flashback episode.
Saving the day
Obviously, the big draw of this series was the action shown in the trailer. As an enjoyer of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films, and of course the classic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which also featured the amazing Michelle Yeoh) this series did amazing for only a PG rating. Of course, I enjoy more brutal fights but the fluidity of the scenes in this show is applause worthy! The locations used for the combat sequences were a fun switch-up as well, school hallways, bowling alleys, and football fields for the big ones.
The visual effects were quite impressive as well, for a television series that was PG-rated it sits directly between network shows from Disney Channel and a big brand movie. The soundtrack and score were killers, able to invoke a lot of mystical intrigue and elevated action scenes.
Although I am not that familiar with the Journey to the West story, there is one scene with a classmate who fires off a list of modern media that has elements from The Monkey King’s story. As a former consumer of manga/anime, it was hilarious listening to Anuj (Mahi Alam) naming multiple popular series that even I’m familiar with such as Dragon Ball.
Reunions and cameos in American Born Chinese
With the overwhelming success of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, there has been quite the career boost for Ke Huy Quan who portrays the television character Freddy Wong as actor Jamie Yao. Freddy is an outdated racist stereotype on the show Beyond Repair. He’s used as an interesting narrative device in more than one manner throughout the show.
At first, they use an accident stitched in with a viral clip, “What Could Go Wong?”, the catchphrase for Freddy Wong when he hurt himself in Beyond Repair. Later on in the season, there’s an interview with Jamie about breaking past the stereotypes to be a hero to anyone. This inspires our lead, Jin Wang (Ben Wang) to shed his own insecurities and help Wei-Chen save both of their worlds.
Another neat casting is Stephanie Hsu as Shiji Niangniang, the Goddess of Stone who helps out Guanyin. Her appearance is brief but it was nice to see them sharing the screen again. Another alumni from EEAAO was the legend James Hong as the Jade Emperor, which was the best selection second to the Monkey King himself.
I enjoyed Silicon Valley while it was on HBO so to see Jimmy O. Yang and not recognize him under the makeup as Ao Guang/The Dragon King was incredible. The entire flashback episode, “Make a Splash” is a nod to the ’70s. The opening credits are stylized after the series Monkey (Saiyūki) from Japan which was filmed in China and told the story of Journey to the West which American Born Chinese is directly inspired by.
What’s next for American Born Chinese
The show ends on a great cliffhanger in more than one way, Jin comes home to find his parents gone. Sitting on his couch is Princess Iron Fan (Poppy Liu), wife to The Bull Demon. The Princess tells him to come with her if he wants to see them again.
This series was strongly served by releasing all at once, there needs to be a variety in release schedules and a weekly release would have hurt it. I do hope Disney+ sees the love for the show and announces a second season to pick up where it left off. There is still so much that could be adapted or even newly created for the show, it could carry a couple of seasons.
American Born Chinese is currently streaming on Disney+! Have you watched it yet? What did you think? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review of Everything Everywhere All At Once!