‘American Born Chinese’ series review: Acting royalty relay the troubles of adolescence through the legend of Monkey King

Ben Wang and Jimmy Liu’s chemistry keeps one hooked on the show despite poor CGI effects, ineffective prosthetics and straightforward storytelling

Updated - May 26, 2023 06:17 pm IST

Published - May 26, 2023 02:42 pm IST

A still from ‘American Born Chinese’

A still from ‘American Born Chinese’ | Photo Credit: Disney+ Hotstar

If life was a horror story, high school would be your worst nightmare coming to life. From navigating acne to comprehending social hierarchies, it alters your perception of life and your sense of self; it is even worse when you are the only second-generation Chinese American in a predominantly white school like Jin Wang (Ben Wang).

Jin is an average high schooler who aims to make it to the school’s junior varsity, get a seat at the cool kids’ table and woo his crush. But his love for comics (something he is not open to talking about in the open), and his family’s financial condition complicate his aspirations. He is also troubled with microaggressions meted out by his principal who refuses to pronounce his name properly, fellow students who speak to him only to confess their love for the South Korean band BTS, and representatives of the culture club who force him to speak about Asian American stereotypes during their recess.

American Born Chinese (English)
Creator: Kelvin Yu
Cast: Ben Wang, Jimmy Liu, James Hong, Leonard Wu, Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan
Episodes: 8
Storyline: Jin Wang juggles his high school social life with his home life; when he meets a new student on the first day of the school year, even more worlds collide as Jin is unwittingly entangled in a battle of Chinese mythological gods

But all heavens break loose (literally) when another Chinese student, Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), joins the school and the principal tasks Jin with the responsibility to show him around the premises and introduce him to the culture because to her they seem to have a lot in common.

Wei-Chen is the son of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, who descends to Earth in search of a fourth scroll to help his father and the Jade Emperor (James Hong) defeat the Bull Demon King (Leonard Wu). 

The prospect of a high-fantasy drama set in a high school (similar to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series) would have sufficed to lure the audience in; the recurring Oscar-winning cast of Everything Everywhere All At Oncesealed the deal. Michelle Yeoh as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, who begins to live among mortals to help Wei-Chen in his mission, is graceful even when she is whining about assembling Ikea tables. Ke Huy Quan essays the role of an actor who walked away from Hollywood because of the few opportunities given to people who looked like him; Stephanie Hsu as Shiji Niangniang is a scheming jeweller with a pet dog. Though they enjoy minimal screen time, the performers bring intrigue and character to the narration and the show allows a mini-Everything Everywhere All At Once reunion.

However, it is Ben and Jimmy whose chemistry and charisma keep us hooked to the show despite poor CGI effects, ineffective prosthetics and simplistic storytelling. This is especially evident in the fourth episode which is set almost entirely in the Heavenly Realm dissecting the Monkey King legend because mid-way through the rather interesting lore one starts yearning to go back to the school compound to watch the boys interact and awkwardly scheme to save the heavens. Their earnest performances make watching the series a pleasant experience. 

American Born Chinese is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar

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