‘American Born Chinese’ Review: Disney+ Series Struggles With Potential
American Born Chinese is the type of show that, in theory, has the potential to be a hit among critics and general audiences. A wildly charismatic protagonist, a celebration of Chinese culture – and the Chinese language – a constant set of jokes in the right places, a commentary about Western culture and racism, and action and adventure thrown in for good measure. The problem is… the Disney+ series doesn’t know how to tie several of its themes together, which results in an experience that’s frustrating for most of its eight-episode run.
The story centers around Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a teenage boy who’s trying to navigate high school in the safest way possible while dealing with a mother that’s slightly overbearing. His life changes when he meets Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), a boy who is caught in a battle of Chinese mythological gods and who, for some reason, enlists Jin’s help to find a valuable artifact. The very first crime of American Born Chinese happened in the casting process: Wang is extremely charismatic, has great timing for jokes, and is 100% adorable. By the end of Episode 1, we’re ready to go on an unforgettable journey with him… but the show is not. For some weird reason, we’re robbed of Wang’s talent as the show chooses to throw Jin to the sidelines and give him story arcs normally found on The CW, while the main story only crosses paths with him tangentially.
Everything Everywhere All Over The Place
To be fair, American Born Chinese also barely uses its established actors. At this point, it’s a given that Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once) will nail every role she’s landed, but here it’s just a joy to watch her on screen. The Academy Award-winner switches from cool auntie to all-powerful deity with ease. She makes it all look effortless and is convincing in both facets of her character. It’s understandable that she takes on the role of mentor (ish) and therefore has to fade into the background frequently, but it doesn’t make it less of a miss. Half the time, the show simply doesn’t know what to do with her.
However, the worst misuse of talent is Ke Huy Quan’s Freddy Wong arc. In the series, he’s an actor who rose to fame by playing a highly stereotypical Asian character in a sitcom, and he looks back on it with a dose of regret. At first, it seems that the sitcom will only be a kind of throwaway joke, but then we’re surprised when the show within a show is brought front and center… but to no avail. The Disney+ series never really fleshes out the complexity of looking at a stereotype through the lens of somebody who profited off it. It’s a testament to Ke Huy Quan’s ability that, in the very few present-day scenes that he’s given, there is a whole other show going on there on his face — but the downside is that we don’t get to watch it.
‘American Born Chinese’ Knows What It Wants to Do, But Doesn’t Get There
Another frustrating element of American Born Chinese is that you can actually see that the series fully knows what it’s trying to do. In one particular episode, everything is thrown aside so that we can watch a Chinese sitcom – with subtitles and all – that lasts a lot longer than you’d expect. In a well-constructed story, this would be a standout episode, maybe the best of the season. The problem here is that this sitcom is populated with characters we don’t really care about, and its story could be explained in a much shorter segment. The sitcom in question also never fully commits to playing up low-budget TV elements for laughs. While some things are purposefully campy, a special effect will sometimes be thrown in and leave you wondering why they didn’t go with low-budget effects as well.
This brings us to the comedy elements of American Born Chinese. The jokes are all there, and they are mostly good; however, the bulk of them are delivered without setup or proper timing, which makes most of them fall flat. Wong and his onscreen mother Yann Yann Yeo can quickly establish a rapport when they share a scene, but this is never played to its fullest. It leaves us wishing for a moment when they can just trade comedic banter.
After all that wasted potential, what’s left for viewers is to try to kick back and enjoy the action elements of American Born Chinese, which unfortunately are not that great. On more than one occasion, the series expects us to buy that no one is hearing the sound of whole rooms getting torn apart as Wei-Chen fights some mythical creature. We’re also expected to believe that no one notices that things have been broken after the fight ends. On one particular occasion, the show uses the excuse of music blaring through speakers to explain why people aren’t hearing a fight that goes on in the adjacent room. The problem is, at a certain point, the music stops, and… people still don’t hear.
Wuxia Fans, Rejoice! ‘American Born Chinese’ Is Here for You
American Born Chinese only really excels when it pays homage to wuxia, with clear allusions to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the visual style in modern classics like Hero. In that sense, the homage isn’t limited to the visuals but is also present in the fights throughout the episodes.
At the end of the day, it feels like American Born Chinese settled on telling the world’s longest origin story, even if it meant ignoring its protagonist and keeping him away from the action throughout its entirety. It’s like the show wanted to showcase all its potential but may only be able to thread it together in a possible second season. If this is what it takes for this story to really come to life, then fine — but at this moment, it’s hard not to view it as a massive waste of time.
You can stream all episodes of American Born Chinese on Disney+.