On the cusp of his return to Hollywood, Ke Huy Quan spoke openly about how roles and opportunities in the industry were limited for Asian actors and stars. And it took him 40 years to start getting roles that were actually worthwhile and not those that were the stereotypical punchlines of Caucasian actors and directors. And those are the kinds of topics the terrific AMERICAN BORN CHINESE takes aim at.
This one gets an “experience now” because there’s simply nothing else on TV like it. We have a fun Wushu-inspired coming-of-age story that boldly takes shots at the microaggressions towards Asians and Asian Americans in this country. The sheer fact that the show openly critiques all of this without ever feeling overly preachy while providing us with terrific action scenes, and weaving in beautiful Chinese folklore and homages to martial arts cinema, the earliest opportunities in this industry for Asian actors, makes it fun, but also touching and enlightening.
It also gets me angry. In the best way possible. Because as an American-born Asian male, I can vouch for everything this show is touching on. From the pressure American culture puts on People of Color to assimilate to be one of their own to the sheer inflexibility of that same American culture to make an effort to understand cultures outside of their own while being ignorant in considering that we all share the same universal challenges and experiences regardless of those cultural differences. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE tackle these issues straight on. From a principal saying things like “kids like Jin” and “families like yours” or dumping the foreign exchange Chinese kid on the only Asian kid in the school to mentor to everyone laughing at the viral meme of “stereotypical Asian getting slapstick injuries ina cheesy 90s sitcom” these things actually happen. And it made me just want to say I hope people do better. And I hope this show holds up a mirror to America and asks them to make some changes. (Even if it’s a long shot considering we’re actually regressing thanks to right-wing efforts to hide the truths about American racial atrocities from the history books).
The show, featuring an EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE reunion of sorts with a cast boasting guest appearances Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, and the aforementioned Quan, as well as Daniel Wu, Ronny Chieng, and many more, also features two terrific star-making performances from its leads Ben Wang (Jin) and Jimmy Liu (Wei-Chen). Wang brings a wonderful, charming, everyman quality to Jin, making him a likable hero we can all root for. While Liu is both adorable and hilarious, with a fish-out-of-water charisma that is endearing without ever feeling obnoxious or annoying. The chemistry and friendship between the two are incredibly winning.
There’s simply a relatable quality to the stories they’re telling here. Both from a cultural standpoint, but also a coming-of-age one too. Some of the most compelling storylines of the show have to do with Jin dealing with the pressures of fitting in at high school and the sadness from the real-world marital problems between his parents. As such, it goes beyond just being an “Asian” show. This is a universal one.
The only thing I will criticize the show on is that not all the subplots pay off satisfactorily. There’s a subplot that is incredibly hard-hitting and beautifully told, but it seemingly has no real connection to the rest of the series. But having said that, the show didn’t need to intersect the two for it to be enjoyable. It’s almost like “Tales of the Black Freighter” from WATCHMEN, where it thematically ties together but not really narratively.
That aside, again, there’s nothing like AMERICAN BORN CHINESE out there on TV or streaming right now. This is a beautiful, bold, unique show with amazing themes, smart direction, great performances, and terrific fight sequences. But more than anything, for the betterment of our society, it’s the type of show that I hope will continue to get me and others like me angry!
All episodes of AMERICAN BORN CHINESE are now streaming on Disney+.