TV Shows

'American Born Chinese' review: A coming-of-age story full of heart and unexpected heroes

Come for the reunion of Michelle Yeoh and Stephanie Hsu, stay for the fantasy and touching journey.
By Yasmeen Hamadeh  on 
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Two teenagers have lunch in a high school cafeteria.
Credit: Disney / Carlos Lopez-Calleja

American Born Chinese feels — respectfully — like an old Disney Channel original movie. 

Based on Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel of the same name, American Born Chinese is a coming-of-age story sprinkled with fantasy. The show's eight episodes follow Jin Wang (Ben Wang), an average high school student trying to make the most out of the new school year. His plans for climbing his school's social ladder hit a roadblock when his principal introduces him to a foreign exchange student called Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu). At first, Jin thinks Wei-Chen is just another awkward nerd, but he soon realizes his new pal is actually the son of an ancient Chinese mythological god. 

Wei-Chen is the son of Sun Wukong, more famously known as the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), and he's on a mission to save the heavenly realm from destruction. There's trouble brewing among the gods, with the notorious Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) planning to usurp their emperor. It's up to Wei-Chen, Jin, and some other gods along the way — including the goddess of mercy, Guanyin (an incredible performance by Michelle Yeoh) — to save the day. 

In many ways, American Born Chinese feels resonant of the Disney Channel's early-2000s heyday. If you're expecting a high-stakes fantasy adventure, American Born Chinese is not that. The show is far more concerned with untangling identity and teenage woes, with its fantasy side used as a vessel for its characters to come to terms with who they are. It's a bit like criminally underrated Disney Channel flicks Minutemen, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, or Sky High, in which stumbling upon secret superpowers was part of the path toward a protagonist's self-acceptance. Plus, American Born Chinese is incredibly family friendly, with the show's humor leaning into the Disney Channel nostalgia of it all. 

Above all else, American Born Chinese shines as a unique coming-of-age story. There's excellent visual storytelling, a cast of characters that are full of heart, and an homage to kung fu films of the past. At times, the show's pacing can be slow, but it's a great watch nonetheless. 

American Born Chinese is a wonderful visual experience. 

A woman wearing a light green dress and headpiece gives something to a human turned monkey in a red forest.
Credit: Disney / Carlos Lopez-Calleja

American Born Chinese is unafraid to experiment with its storytelling. One episode sees the show paying direct tribute to '70s-style kung fu films for its entirety, with colorful title cards dispersed throughout and dramatic close-ups on characters' faces right before a fight. Throughout, the show is abundant with great kung fu fighting sequences in a far more kid friendly homage to the genre than works like Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill

The show will often pivot to a '90s sitcom format, thanks to its subplot starring Ke Huy Quan, who plays a character on a sitcom finding a resurgence in popularity. At some point, Jin also imagines a scenario that's played out in the sitcom format, another example of the show's great use of different visual mediums to tell its story — and a way American Born Chinese balances novelty and nostalgia. 

The Everything Everywhere All at Once reunion is excellent. 

A collage of a woman in a green gown, a professor holding a book, and a woman wearing a pink shirt.
Credit: Disney / Carlos Lopez-Calleja

In another universe, Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, and Ke Huy Quan played the Wang family. In this one, they're scattered between playing gods and humans, but the reunion is swell all the same. Yeoh's humor is electric (to no one's surprise), and her character serves wonderfully as the show's comic relief. Watching a graceful deity acquaint herself with the mundane tasks of ordinary life, from assembling IKEA furniture — she claims, succinctly, "I will not be defeated by Swedish furniture" — to enjoying the magnificence of all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets is an utterly joyful experience. 

On par with Yeoh is an equally stellar Hsu, whose role may be small but is irrevocably memorable. The pair have a scene that's guaranteed to make you laugh, as they flawlessly bounce off each other. You'll forget they once acted out a strained mother-daughter relationship; instead, you'll exclusively remember them as two goddesses with enough sarcasm to put Seinfeld to shame.

Quan's character serves an important role in a subplot that grounds the show's exploration of Asian American identity. His character arc is woefully touching, and while its real importance might not be revealed until the show's end, it's one of the most memorable nuggets in American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese feels like a prologue. 

A teenager wearing a blue shirt stands atop a table in a high school cafeteria.
Credit: Disney / Carlos Lopez-Calleja

Rather than feeling like the first chapter in Jin and Wei-Chen's story, American Born Chinese feels more like a prologue — the moment the two first became friends, and the moment Jin realizes the kind of hero he can be, before his greater adventure. The show explores what it means to be an Asian American in the present moment, in which conversations regarding ethnicity and race are happening, but genuine unlearning isn't. Jin struggles with accepting his identity and regularly deals with microaggressions, like when his classmates think he'd enjoy eating Panda Express for his birthday. By the season finale, he figures out some big things about himself, but the show's pacing so far doesn't really see the full extent of his character flourishing. 

Like the hero's journey in myths like Hercules, Jin's arc in this season is reminiscent of the moment when the hero first gets called upon. He hasn't even gotten to the training montage yet, but by the season finale, he's finally at the moment when he's willing to get out of the door and be a hero. The show's story is only beginning with this first season propelling our protagonist into something greater and learning how to take pride in his identity. Jin's adventure is far from over, and I'm keen to see more of it. 

American Born Chinese premieres May 24 on Disney+.(opens in a new tab)

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Yasmeen Hamadeh

Yasmeen Hamadeh is an Entertainment Intern at Mashable, covering everything about movies, TV, and the woes of being chronically online.

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