‘American Born Chinese’ Review: We’re All Walt’s Children

‘American Born Chinese’ Review: We’re All Walt’s Children

When it came out 17 years ago, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel “American Born Chinese” was singular in several ways: for its focus on everyday Asian American characters; for the way he used Chinese mythology to amplify and deepen his story of anomie and immigrant identity; and for the glued, stop-and-start way he told the story. It was perhaps more dignified than exciting, but its novelty and earnestness set it apart.

The eight-episode Disney+ series “American Born Chinese,” very loosely based on Yang’s book, will premiere Wednesday in a different world, if not a very different pop culture setting. His Asianness is notable but not new; two of its cast members, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, won Oscars in March (and a third, Stephanie Hsu, was nominated) for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the latest milestone in Asian film music or asian-themed tv wave. That the roster of “American Born Chinese” writers and directors will be almost entirely Asian in 2023 is, in 2023, expectation rather than surprise.

It’s all a long way to get to the point that while “American Born Chinese” offers a number of things you might expect – a textured depiction of first- and second-generation immigrant suburban life, a flashy incorporation of characters from the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” a critique of Hollywood history of racist portrayals of Asians – these things no longer define or delimit the experience of watching or thinking about it. The key word here is not American or Chinese but Disney. And the fusion that matters most isn’t the one between East and West, but the all-commercial one between high school comedy-drama and martial arts-influenced superhero action.

So the somewhat disappointing report is that after 17 years, “American Born Chinese” is a perfectly typical teenage comedy-drama-supernatural half-hour adventure series. On the bright side, the family at its heart – teenager Jin Wang (Ben Wang) and his parents, Christine and Simon (Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han) – are sensitively drawn and have excellent performances, and the naturalistic parts stories that focus on their home life and Jin’s struggles at school often have humor and a quiet but sure emotional pull.

That the traditional family story is the show’s strongest feature makes sense given that Kelvin Yu, who created “American Born Chinese,” is a longtime producer and screenwriter for “Bob’s Burgers,” the animated comedy. from Fox, which for more than a decade was the funniest, sharpest, and sweetest show on American family on TV.

In contrast, the elements of the show reflect the three-part structure of the graphic novel. They’re put together with refinement and intelligence, but they’re not as imaginative or compelling as they need to be to pull the series out of its above-average pace.

The mythological plot, a modern sequel to the Monkey King story in “Journey to the West”, has been fully integrated into the current story and standardized, Disney-Marvel style, as an alternatively wacky and violent adventure. between best friends with lots of special effects, martial arts yarn and creature makeup. The Monkey King’s son, Wei-chen (Jim Liu), comes to earth on a quest that involves Jin; the supernatural story points are deftly but not very inventively tied to the usual teen drama checklist – pep rally, pool party, big game – leading up to a raucous “save the high school” finale.

Well-known artists like Ronny Chieng, James Hong, Hsu, and Jimmy O. Yang play gods and demons, but the characters are heavily drawn and difficult to animate, even in a nearly one-episode sequence set in heaven and styled like a Shaw Brothers Hong Kong Epic. Only Yeoh, wielding her supernatural charm and nimble humor as the goddess Guanyin, makes a strong impression.

Also wedged into the series – presumably replacing the conceptualized section of the graphic novel that featured a shape-shifting character provocatively named Chin-Kee – are scenes from a decades-old make-up sitcom featuring a strongly stereotype. Asian nerd (played by Quan). This element eventually breaks out of its show bounds in the show and emerges in the story proper, making the series’ otherwise more subtle points about racism and stereotyping explicit. But he does it in a mannered and self-aware way. (The series as a whole feels like it’s pulling off a Disneyesque balancing act when it comes to racism; in Jin’s high school experience, assaults are continually portrayed as the result of ignorance rather than bigotry or anger.)

Easy to look at but just as easy not to look at, “American Born Chinese” strives to charm you in a way that can work or can make you wince at their familiarity. Asianism is indicated by gags – deftly delivered – about keeping soy sauce packets and not loading up on rice; Teresa Teng appears on the soundtrack when sentiment is required. What it demonstrates most clearly is that in the contemporary market, coming-of-age clichés easily cross cultural boundaries.

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