‘American Born Chinese’: Why You Should Watch the Disney+ Coming-of-Age TV Series
Jun 2, 2023   •   Meryl Medel
8List.ph is published by ID8, Inc.
Jun 2, 2023   •   Meryl Medel
A confession: I didn’t know anything about the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang before it was made into a TV series. So I didn’t really know what I was getting into other than what I saw from the trailer and read from the synopsis. But this bold take on Chinese myths successfully captured my attention with its charming coming-of-age story. I think you’ll love it too, so here are 8 reasons why you should watch Disney+’s latest series American Born Chinese.
Adapted from Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel of the same name, American Born Chinese follows the story of average kid Jin Wang as he tries to navigate both high school and home at the same time. When he meets new student Wei-Chen, Jin finds himself suddenly thrust into the fantastical world of Chinese mythological gods.
It’s a new twist to a familiar story — a normal kid ends up getting entangled in a battle bigger than he realizes, but this time, it’s the world of Chinese heavenly beings.
On top of being a new take on the coming-of-age genre, the show also presents familiar myths, particularly the story of Sun Wukong, a.k.a. the Monkey King. If you’re not sure who that is, he’s the Chinese mythological being whose story is told in the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. He’s also inspired so many other stories, including the anime Dragon Ball.
In a roundtable interview, Daniel Wu, who plays Sun Wukong, said this is one of the reasons why he was drawn to the show: “I’ve been asked to play Monkey King many times before, especially when I was in Asia, and I’ve always turned it down because there are so many versions of the same story Journey to the West, that I didn’t think there was anything new I could bring to the table. But what is interesting about American Born Chinese is Jean has written kind of the next chapter of Monkey King’s life. So after the Journey to the West, he’s also become a father. And so what we see in this story is an aspect of Monkey King that we’ve never seen before.
“Now [Sun Wukong] is this older, more responsible guy,” he added. “He’s got to deal with his son running amok, and I think that was what drew me to wanting to play this version of it because it was so different. It was such a different take on what we’re used to seeing the Monkey King.”
The world of Chinese mythology feels like a whole new world, yet also familiar from certain adaptations. And American Born Chinese leans into all of that. There are their elaborate costumes and makeup, especially when any of the heavenly beings appear. Everyone also talks in Chinese, truly immersing you into the life of a Chinese-American family and the world of Chinese mythological gods.
Moving away from the graphic novel (which actually didn’t have much action), the show instead embraced the mythological martial gods. Because there’s at least one action scene per episode and it’s so well-choreographed that the cast looks like they’re dancing (albeit a little violently).
With a cast list filled with Oscar nominees and rising stars, it’s no surprise that the series delivered on acting chops, too. The dynamics of the actors with one another translated well into their characters. Jin and Wei-Chen may live in different worlds, but they go through similar concerns of any teenager trying to figure out their place in the world. Meanwhile, Jin’s parents and Sun Wukong both are trying to reorient themselves into their position as parents while getting to know who they are now as a person.
And while we never see Ke Huy Quan’s Jamie Yao/Freddy Wong interact with the rest of the characters, the impact of his role as the stereotypical Asian onscreen and a normal person now trying to break free of those stereotypes can still be felt across most of them, especially Jin and his family.
At its core, American Born Chinese is a coming-of-age story. But it’s also about navigating discrimination and prejudices, dismantling stereotypes, and accepting your personal identity. All of these, of course, are set against the backdrop of the wild world of high school, and occasionally, the heavenly realm.
Despite the fantastical element of the show, nearly all characters are completely relatable from the awkwardness of high school to the excitement of new friendships to the worries of family homes.
The show started strong, but by the halfway point, things dragged until it picked up again in the final episode, which was packed with epic action. While the pacing was a little off, the story itself was enough to make me excited for a second season.
A fun and charming take on the coming-of-age genre, American Born Chinese takes you on an exciting journey through Chinese mythology, American dreams, and Asian diaspora — all through the lenses of a regular teenager. So even if you’re not familiar with its original material, American Born Chinese is a must-watch.
American Born Chinese exclusively streams on Disney+.
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