Nuanced, entertaining, and packed with heart, American Born Chinese is exactly the kind of show Disney should be making.
This review of the Disney+ series American Born Chinese Season 1 does not contain spoilers.
The supernatural teen drama remains the most bankable form of entertainment in the world, and it’s shows like American Born Chinese, a Disney+ adaptation of the 2006 Gene Luen Yang graphic novel, that remind us why that will probably always be the case.
That isn’t to say this – or any of the others, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Harry Potter – is perfect, but the ideas underpinning it are timeless. Discovering strange new powers and responsibilities will work as a metaphor for puberty as long as teenagers exist, and I don’t expect us to run out any time soon.
And is there any better analog for high school than fighting off a mystical, apocalyptic threat?
American Born Chinese Season 1 review and plot summary
The protagonist of American Born Chinese is Jin Wang (Ben Wang), the son of Chinese immigrants who can barely speak Mandarin and has no interest in his heritage. He just wants to play soccer and ask his pretty classmate Amelia (Sydney Taylor) out on a date, but he’s constantly caught between warring forces – his nerdy essential nature versus the jock bullies he wants to impress, his family’s hardworking traditional conservatism versus his desire for a “normal” childhood.
And that’s before he finds himself embroiled in a conflict with Chinese gods from Heaven.
Enter Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), who arrives as a confident new kid who’s unusually sure of himself but quickly reveals that he’s the son of Sun Wukong the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), a celestial deity facing whatever the godhood equivalent of a coup is. Wei-Chen, under the guardianship of Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy (Michelle Yeoh), is on a world-saving quest that he thinks Jin is integral to, but Jin’s social life has other ideas.
Is American Born Chinese good or bad?
American Born Chinese is an extremely well-made version of this very familiar kind of story, ideal for a platform like Disney+, where the House of Mouse’s bottomless coffers can supplement universal coming-of-age and social acceptance themes with Oscar-winning actors and fancy special effects.
It might have still worked if it had been half-arsed, but thankfully that isn’t the case. Across eight episodes the show develops tremendously likeable characters with sensible arcs and a surprising amount of depth. The fanciful action, while impressively choreographed and embellished by special effects, isn’t style over substance, but instead a complement to a meaty human drama that engages head-on with the Chinese American experience.
You can see this welcome cultural subtext everywhere, from Jin’s efforts to fit into a (largely) white American high school, an in-universe ‘90s sitcom starring a racist caricature Asian character played by Ke Huy Quan, and the fact that the mythological particulars are cribbed from Journey to the West, a 16th-Century Chinese novel of considerable literary renown.
Is American Born Chinese worth watching?
Youngish teens will love this, while their parents and perhaps even older teens will find it very respectable and well-made entertainment with a big heart and a sense of humour.
This is, I think, the kind of thing one imagined as original content when a Disney streaming service was just an idea. Freed from the lumbering commercial and worldbuilding expectations of Marvel or Star Wars, American Born Chinese is a lovely little show that’s well-worth a look.
What did you think of American Born Chinese Season 1? Comment below.
You can watch this series with a subscription to Disney+.