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American Born Chinese review: heavenly war vs teenage hormones

Emerging actor Ben Wang is brilliant company in this Buffy-like adventure that’s more about high-school drama than it is ancient Chinese mythology.

Far across the multiverse, a sausage-fingered Michelle Yeoh is canoodling with Halloween scream-queen Jamie Lee Curtis. Light years away, in another time and space, she’s fighting side-by-side with Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond variant.

But in Disney+’s fast and loose adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese, a playful update on Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century foundational text Journey to the West, she has assumed her rightful form as the blinged-up Goddess of Mercy Guanyin, AKA ‘The One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World.’

Oh, and she’s brought her fellow Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once husband Ke Huy Quan along for the ride, sort of. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves (that’ll happen when spelunking around the infinite pools of the multiverse).

Our entrance into the reality of American Born Chinese, moulded by showrunner and Bob’s Burgers writer-producer Kelvin Yu, is via awkwardly adorkable high schooler Jin Wang, played by an instantly winning Ben Wang.

Your typical Asian-American teen born in California to Taiwanese parents – Chin Han as his work-stressed dad Simon and Yann Yann Yeo as his intrusive but well-meaning church volunteer mum Christine – he’s trying to move past his comic book and action-figure collection (top marks for Disney being big enough to show a Superman model in his bedroom beside Cap America) and onto the soccer team with the popular jocks.

Read: Everything Everywhere All at Once review: bonkers but brilliant

Like any teenager wrestling with hormones and their place in the world, this identity pivot isn’t without collateral damage. Cosplaying and emo makeup-wearing former bestie Anuj (Bengali-American actor Mahi Alam, also sweet) got the cold shoulder and is nursing his wounds, though a clueless Jin can’t quite figure out why they’re no longer talking.

Noob time

Jin’s thrust into buddying up with supposedly Chinese-born new student Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) by their grimace-inducing school principal (Jennifer Irwin): ‘Since you have so much in common’. Despite Jin’s best intentions, he can’t help but feel mortified by the noob’s clinginess. A resistance that gets worse when an accident involving a classroom door, cleaning trolley and glass trophy cabinet sees Jin wind up as a viral meme, with dubbed-over stereotypical dialogue from a dubious ‘90s-style sitcom about the ‘comical’ mishaps of an Asian character played by Quan.

Read: The Clearing on Disney+ review: a juicy look at cults and complicity

When Japanese-American student Suzy Nakamura (Turning Red’s vocal lead Rosalie Chiang) leaps to his defence, starting a protest movement against the soccer player who posted it, it’s the last thing Jin wants. It’s all too painfully true that sometimes we make excuses for bullies just to blend in, but the show does let the bullies off a little too lightly.

Jin’s hopes of making the team and attracting no unnecessary attention other than that of cute classmate Amelia (Sydney Taylor) are further sabotaged by the minor detail that Wei-Chen’s actually the son of Daniel Wu’s heavenly realm-based Monkey King, currently masquerading in human form.

Wei-Chen has stolen a magical iron staff that his dad needs to stamp out a rebellion led by Leonard Wu’s Bull Demon. He’s convinced Jin is his spiritual guide who will help him put things right. Which leads us to Yeoh’s Guanyin, who has to persuade the Monkey King to let his son follow his hunch.

If all of this sounds like a lot, it’s really not. While the mythological underpinnings regularly interrupt the plot with fantastic fight sequences, American Born Chinese is more Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Monkey, predominantly focused on the very mortal concerns of teenagers to whom the everyday ups and downs of life can seem like a cavalcade of catastrophe to rival any war in heaven.

Lovely moments

As directed by Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings helmer Destin Daniel Cretton and, for one of eight episodes, Charlie’s Angel actor Lucy Liu, some of the show’s loveliest moments are between Jin and his mum. Whether she’s trying to convince him that a cartoon-appliqued hoodie in a shop that also sells milk is the height of high fashion, or responding, when he grumbles about dinner being mostly skin and toenails, that, ‘sometimes the things you hate are good for you,’ the recognisable rub-up of occasionally conflicted love is lush.

Wang and Liu are a great double act, too, with the super-powered Wei-Chen equally susceptible to strops with his magic-wielding dad and conflicted loyalties between his quest and his genuine commitment to friendship with Jin, priorities that bump up against each other in unfortunate ways.

Yeoh is luminous as ever, even when switching out of her diaphanous gowns and bejewelled headwear to slum it in trackies and a cap while pretending to be Wei-Chen’s aunt, bemoaning that her valiant battle against self-assembly Swedish furniture will not best a goddess who can soothe the struggles of millions. Quan eventually makes the switch from his sitcom cameos into the current-day story, with Australian export Ronny Chieng also popping up as a drunken monk in exile with his own ulterior motives.

The American Born Chinese ensemble is expansive and, like many streaming shows, the story takes a teeny bit too long to tease out, including a very Monkey-like bottle episode that, while ‘70s retro fun, can’t quite hide that it’s an unnecessary diversion. But the fights are top-notch and Wang’s such great company, with the emerging identity struggle he’s been entrusted to carry by Kelvin Yu well worth a stopover as you traverse the ever-expanding multiverse of content out there.

Rated PG

American Born Chinese is currently streaming on Disney+.