By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Once upon a time, or in 2023, there was a rebellion in Heaven. Angry at being looked over and never breaching Heaven’s glass ceiling, Niu Mowang, the Bull Demon, set out to steal the magical staff of the Monkey God, Sun Wukong, and overthrow the Jade Emperor. Niu Mowang wasn’t the only one upset. He had equally disgruntled allies, such as Ji Gong, passed over for being the next Great Sage because he was passed out drunk, but still blaming Sun Wukong and the Jade Emperor for his demotion. Once upon a time, or thousands of years ago, they were all friends, or at least partied together.
Now, Sun Wukong’s son, Wei-Chen, has taken it upon himself to safeguard the staff, find a mythical Fourth Scroll, and basically save the world, erm, Heaven. He has to go to “Earth” or “the realm of humans” to find said Scroll, as he has had a dream that a boy there will be his Guide. Along the way, he is helped by the compassionate and apparently also martial arts-wielding Guan Yin. Which is good because his “Guide” doesn’t want to have much to do with him. He’s too busy with high school.
This is the scenario of Disney’s new television series, “American Born Chinese,” based on the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. The show combines the Heavenly and the Earthly realms, their denizens, and their stories, in oftentimes amusing ways. Guan Yin, for example, played by Michelle Yeoh in sweatpants (looking better than any of us have ever looked in sweatpants) becomes obsessed with decorating and cleaning the apartment she shares on Earth with Wei-Chen, played by Jim Liu, as his “aunt.” She’s come there to meddle, I mean, neutrally observe, the goings on of Wei-Chen as he accomplishes his mission. Seems she once did the same thing for Sun Wukong, and she urges the protective father to let Wei-Chen play out his dream, even if it means Heaven will be overrun by demons and malcontents.
But the underlying assumption is that it will never happen as long as Wei-Chen follows his heart. While it becomes somewhat overplayed and perplexing as the show goes on, at first it’s funny that Guan Yin struggles to build an IKEA table, for instance (Oh IKEA, will people never stop making fun of your “simple yet complicated” instructions?). Or sits on the floor decluttering, Marie Kondo style, and wearing yellow, rubber cleaning gloves.
In every episode, there is a fight scene that is entertaining and well-shot, with the theatrics we have come to expect. I can’t imagine the number of wires needed to get some of the stunts accomplished with all the flying and twisting. Oftentimes, the fight scenes happen while Wei-Chen’s so-called “Guide,” Jin, played by Ben Wang, and his family and friends, are going about their business. One of the favorite techniques of the show is to run two to three plotlines at once. They don’t exactly overlap in any thematic way, but they are a fun way to mix things up and make you pay attention.
All of the Heavenly bodies get a makeover when they descend to Earth. Sun Wukong, played by Daniel Wu, imo, is the handsomest Monkey King so far. He’s also the most “kingly”—but I did miss the monkey-ish affections that other versions of this famous Chinese deity have perfected: the twitching, the sniffing, the willfulness. Wu is a mature version while his son takes over the epic journeying (his son acts even more human, whether he’s in Heaven or down on Earth; also, I don’t know who his mother is…).
On Earth, Niu Mowang, played by Leonard Wu, sports a “badass” leather jacket and a nose ring to make sure we don’t forget he’s a bull; while Ji Gong, played by Ronny Chieng, is still a drunk, but now owns a restaurant and for some reason is called “wise.” (Yes, Ji Gong fights “Drunken Master” style and there is definitely at least one tribute moment.) Ji Gong does crack the code on where the Fourth Scroll might be. Lo and behold, it has something to do with Jin’s family, the two sides of which have been warring for generations, kind of like everyone in Heaven.
Well, people have always said that Heaven is just a divine version of life on Earth. And let me tell you, Heaven in “American Born Chinese” (and in Chinese myth) is very classist. But let’s talk about Jin.
Jin is obsessed with being popular in school. There is nothing else he wants as badly, not even the love of his crush, Amelia, played by Sydney Taylor, and definitely not to help Wei-Chen with his Heavenly quest. He’s a terrible Guide and not a very good friend. He will put up with absolutely anything to get in with the cool kids, including racism. It does suggest that many of us will go along with objectionable behavior to get what we want. Or in a more sympathetic interpretation, it illustrates the difficulty of fighting the status quo; better just to go along, shake it off, and say it didn’t bother you.
“American Born Chinese” is like “Saved by the Bell,” if it was bending over backwards to atone for anti-Asian racism. But I hate to say that it’s not 100% clear what we’re supposed to think. For instance, there is a made-up show within the show called “Beyond Repair” that showcases a bumbling Asian man, played by Ke Huy Quan. The character’s last name, like Jin’s, is Wong (Jin’s is Wang), so his tagline is “What could go Wong?” at which point he gets something dropped on his head. Queue laughter.
This is the town’s favorite show. Some bashfully stop watching as soon as Jin enters. Some ask Jin if it’s okay for them to watch and he says yes. Then there is the confusing scene when the star of the show himself is, in “real life,” fixing his neighbor’s appliance, and even SHE watches the show. She has switched it on before he even leaves the house, and all he does is smile and shake his head. Like he doesn’t seem angry or humiliated, so I don’t know what the inclusion of this show is accomplishing.
What I think “American Born Chinese” will accomplish is a renewed interest in a younger generation for Chinese folklore, and perhaps some grown up conversation on what is racist and what is not. I hope that it also inspires school-age kids to stop trying to win the approval of their very not cool peers and just “be themselves,” which is what Wei-Chen is encouraged to do, but Jin really sucks at.
“American Born Chinese” airs May 24 on Disney+.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.