Adapted from Gene Luen Yang's acclaimed graphic novel, the American Born Chinese series (on Disney+), with a star-studded cast including Oscar winners Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh, in addition to Ronny Chieng, Daniel Wu, Ben Wang, Chin Han and Yeo Yann Yann, is one of the most endearing and exciting new shows to watch.
Developed by Kelvin Yu and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), who also served as an executive producer, and Charlie's Angels icon Lucy Liu, it's not surprising that this impressive team was able to take such a robust narrative world and condense it into an impactful eight episodes.
What is 'American Born Chinese' about?
American Born Chinese is largely centred around the character of Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a Chinese-American teenager who unexpectedly gets thrown into battle of mythological gods when he meets Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), a new student at Jin's high school, the son of the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), with Michelle Yeoh portraying Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.
While the story plays with different human and divine worlds and timelines, the one constant is the theme of identity.
This includes American Born Chinese taking us into a sitcom, essentially a show within a show. That's where we meet Freddy Wong, a character played by actor Ke Huy Quan, who is regularly the butt of the joke in this '90s sitcom. Jin's schoolmates also compare him to this accident prone sitcom character.
In one particularly impactful moment Quan gives a passionate speech about how his character Jamie (who played Freddy in the sitcom) was only ever offered roles of "nerds and neighbours, and sometimes ninjas," but he wanted to play the hero of a story. More specifically, someone who shows some courage and fights for something that matters.
“I hope that there’s a kid out there watching this who feels he doesn’t have to be a punch line. Who believes that he can be the hero," Jamie says.
It's easy to see parallels between Jamie's statements in this scene to what we're seeing with the character of Jin in American Born Chinese. Jin gets to be a hero in this story.
“I get paid, I have a job, which is pretty incredible just to start, but then to have a job working with some of the most incredible people in the field, is just an incredible gift,” Wang told Yahoo Canada.
“Then on top of that, to be able to tell this really meaningful story that I think will really be helpful for a lot of kids out there who grew up kind of like I did. I never had a show like this growing up and I really, really wish I could have. It's a dream. It's better than anything I could have ever imagined.”
'We don't pull any punches with the fights that we have'
While American Born Chinese is full of mythological beings, a big part of the heart of the series is evident in the scenes with the Wang family. Yeo Yann Yann plays Jin's mother Christine, and Chin Han plays his father Simon. While the couple are navigating parenting a teenager, Simon is also battling with his discomfort to ask for a well-deserved raised. Simon is feeling the pressure to do so from Christine, while Christine herself tries to contribute to the family's finances by starting her own business.
“I love Christine, she's so loving and she's so warm,” Yeo said. “She's so caring. She's not 100 per cent a great mother. She's trying her best, she fails but she's trying all the time.”
“She's trying to hold the family together all the time. That's what women always do. [Any] race, any background, … we always see women doing that. That is Christine and I was just in love with her.”
For Chin Han, a highlight for him was being able to explore the father-son dynamic in an honest way.
“I love the opportunity to explore the father and son dynamic, I think we don't see it enough,” Chin Han said. “Even when we see it, it's a very cliched or generic kind of version of it.”
“I think in general, Asian people are seen, or there's a general idea that we're more restrained, we're austere, and strict and hardworking. But I think there is a lot going on there, between fathers and sons."
It's that commitment to authentic storytelling, even amid all the fantastical beings, that really grounds this series. What's so lovely about watching this family is that the story doesn't shy away from very real but contentious family moments.
“We don't pull any punches with the fights that we have,” Chin Han said. “We worked very hard in those scenes. We rehearsed, we improvised, we pushed the limits of how far we could go to be true to what we, ourselves, have observed in our own lives.”
“I think that is part of the creation that we bring to an audience, an authentic representation of our lives. Especially with a series like this, where you have all these mythological creatures, and characters and gods and demigods, and a world that functions not only metaphorically, but literally, .... it is very important for us, especially, to be grounded in reality. So that we can have an entry point for the audience to get into the story and see themselves in it.”
'It makes you feel like you're in good hands'
That's even true with the way that Jin's high school life is shown. American Born Chinese leans into the awkwardness of being a teenager, the growing pains associated with that time in your life, including having a crush.
“It's really nice to see because, personally, I [was] horrifically awkward at 15,” Sydney Taylor who plays Jin's friend/crush Amelia, told Yahoo Canada. “That was definitely in reality.”
“I think because me and Ben are so close and know each other so well, there was a lot of freedom when we would do scenes together. ... We could play that awkwardness really well because we had that freedom and a connection between us. So it was much easier to do."
With the incredibly skilled and nuanced storyteller Cretton at the helm, as an executive producer and director, Wang highlighted that he really focused on "storytelling above all else."
“He is a director that really cares about actors,” Wang said. “I remember the first scene we ever shot for the show was me and Yann Yann in a shopping mall, just picking out clothes, ... and we probably spent five hours shooting that one scene, which is way longer than any other scene that we shot."
"But he gave us that time because he knew that it would take that time for us to establish our relationship and try out our characters. He understood that about how we worked as actors and having someone like that leading the charge is really, it makes you feel like you're in good hands."