The journey for Jin Wang in “American Born Chinese” couldn’t have begun at a more opportune time. The protagonist of Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel — now a Disney’s eight-episode series from showrunner Kelvin Yu — springs forth when narratives with an Asian identity are stratospheric-high in demand and popularity. Even with the silhouette of a high schooler that folks might take for granted, Jin is living in a world where he is outlined with the community’s glow, one generated by the golden reception (and, at times, major acclaim) for “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” “Furie,” “Ms. Marvel,” “Shang-Chi,” “Pachinko,” “Kung Fu” and numerous more — past, present and upcoming.
But the person doing the journeying seems to operate in a different kind of time. With eyes that often favor distant things and joy from playing hooky and watching viral videos, Jin Wang (Ben Wang) must have misplaced the community’s “It’s our time!” memo somewhere. But through framing choices that accompany figures to listen rather than interrogate — which Destin Daniel Cretton, the pilot’s director, also used in his pre-Marvel darling “Short Term 12” — it will become clear that Jin is rejecting the memo — at least not consciously. And, trời ơi, there’s no blaming him. At home, mama Christine (Yeo Yann Yann) and baba Simon (Chin Han) have less fire for love and more to fry each other. At school, people like him are alienated when alone and made submissive once popular. In life, the odds of him being remembered for his mistakes are higher than for his right moves, not unlike the sitcom actor Freddy Wong (Ke Huy Quan), whom his peers adore better as a “funny” stereotype. It’s a struggle to find and feel glory in his shoes. It’s possible that the peak of Jin is to blend in the old-fashioned way so that the notion of hurt can be avoided.
However, this is still a journey, so Jin’s comfort in the constant will be short-lived. As one part of Yang’s graphic novel is a spin on Wu Cheng’en’s classic text “Journey to the West,” the godly are fated to interact with the earthly, forcing elements to mingle and break off all the time and all over. Here, this takes the form of Jin making two mind-blowing discoveries — that the foreign exchange student, Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), who’s befriending him is the son of Sun Wukong/The Monkey King (Daniel Wu) in disguise, and that Jin has been prophesied to be the guide toward a sutra scroll powerful enough to end the uprising on Heaven from Niu Mowang/Bull Demon (Leonard Wu).
Although ire has been drawn when it’s revealed (mistakenly?) that Wei-Chen is Chinese — the source material has the character as Taiwanese; the actor is also a native there — warranting more notice is how Liu exerts a great pull when he’s present. Wei-Chen doesn’t need to say that he’s a “confident guy” to convince people; the point will be made just fine with a gaze at once inquiring and resolute and movements that can switch from teenager to celestial fighter and back on a dime. Above all, he makes Jin’s world spin and turn upside down, in one way or another, a realm away from the ordinary. This over-stretches Jin many times but, more importantly, gives him a reason to chuckle. At last, there’s a reason for him to think about what can be over what is, and always with the essence he’s born with over one desired by other populaces. Andrew Yang could use a friend like this. Let’s hope multi-season aspirations will soon be less risky so this beautiful relationship can grow and bloom and give a relatable Wang more room to manifest the supposed oomph attached to Jin’s newfound shifts.
Don’t worry; despite these many words about self-exploration, “American Born Chinese” remembers to bring the fun. Action sequences — except, and unfortunately, a key one that doesn’t use all of the provided space before cueing the VFX — are permeated with a sense of playfulness; two early highlights include a kitchen beatdown with Martial Club’s Brian Le and a chase for the Jingu Bang/iron staff across and above Heavenly Realm’s reddened trees and waters. Other delights can be found in Guanyin/Goddess of Mercy (Michelle Yeoh) expressing an auntie-like positivity for an all-you-can-eat buffet or a complex IKEA table, or a flashback episode that sees why, to Niu Mowang, Heaven is due for a dramatic change. The revelation can feel underwhelming because of the show’s overall electric pacing and likely the “(x) many episodes” proviso, but forgiveness might be in order due to some convincing brotherly chemistry in Leonard Wu and Daniel Wu’s performances, humorous-yet-delightful production design from Cindy Chao and Michele Yu, and a committed leaning into nostalgia that effortlessly melds the footage into an olden ABC–TVB co-production.
Yet back to dialogues about the self we go, for, in the end, this is where “American Born Chinese” thrives. This deserves to be taken as a sign that Disney, Yu, and company are holding a special creation in their hands, one with both an adventurous sheen and, better yet, effective affirmations. It is in the latter that those of Asian descent today, and tomorrow, find more reason to kick off parades than to come to pauses, realizing that none could or should go wrong when we believe in everything that makes us “we.” A point in this vein awaits Jin and Wei-Chen in the series’ later episodes, and, in the context of trips and journeys, this is their West where enlightenment dawns. [B+]