American Born Chinese Review: An Action Packed, Funny, And Relatable Coming-Of-Age TV Show [SXSW 2023]

"American Born Chinese" is a great blend of a Disney Channel teen comedy and Marvel action, but with better visuals and more heart than most of the MCU's recent output.

Based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name by Gene Luen Yang, the show follows Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a Chinese American teen navigating a world of whiteness. Sure, he fits in fine with his soccer bros, but he also quietly stands aside as they mock the other kids of color, praying he isn't next, just as he brushes off any sign of discomfort as the school becomes obsessed with a TikTok trend mocking a sitcom with a racist Asian character.

Wang does a phenomenal job as Jin, following in the footsteps of the like of Hudson Yang or Frankie Muniz in giving a performance that looks perpetually stressed out and anxious, which only makes for some hilarious comedy. Unsurprisingly, Yin's entire world turns upside down when a teacher assigns him to spend time with the new student, Wei-Chen (Jim Liu), a dorky Taiwanese kid who openly wears robot shirts, brings manga to school and talks about anime and video games in public. 

Thankfully, the script avoids the lazy trope of the dorky loser foreigner. This is not "Perfect Strangers," and Wei-Chen is more than just a kid who reminds Yin of his roots. Instead, Jim Liu is the indisputable breakout star of the first two episodes that were shown at SXSW. Wei-Chen is full of confidence, he is funny and cool, and he can kick all sorts of ass, since he also happens to be the son of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King from "Journey to the West" — a hugely popular novel that has been adapted countless of times, and inspired the landmark anime "Dragon Ball."

A badass superhero origin

"American Born Chinese" is not just a good coming-of-age story, but a rather good Wuxia-inspired epic tale of gods and mortals. The first episode opens with a scene of the Monkey King chasing his son, who has stolen his magical staff and run away. Director Destin Daniel Cretton takes the skills he gained from handling a big Marvel project like "Shang-Chi," but free from the constraints of a big-budget studio movie with ever-changing VFX and other issues, he delivers his most impressive action work to date.

This show looks as good as the best of the recent Marvel shows and films, if not better. The choreography is fluid, easy to follow, and just stunning, while the backgrounds and cinematography are awe-inspiring. As the second episode properly introduces the story going forward, there's a sense of this being something of a superhero origin story, and so far, it works.

It works not only because the fights are cool, but because — like the best Marvel comics used to be — the human drama is compelling. The narrative masterfully weaves together Wei-Chen's mythical adventure with Jin's earthly concerns. It is easy to be engaged by Jin's story, thanks to the careful attention to detail the show gives to creating authenticity. 

There is a specificity to the way Jin talks to his parents, the decoration in their family home, the choice of posters and books in Jin's bedroom, and the way he talks to his friends, all of which shows how much this kind of series has changed since the heyday of The Disney Channel. The microaggressions, bullies, and casual racism aren't relegated to a one-off "special episode," but are woven throughout the entire fabric of the show itself.

A relatable and funny coming-of-age story

Of course, what is a good Disney Channel-like teen show without some laughs? Showrunner Kelvin Yu (who wrote some of the all-time best "Bob's Burgers" episodes like "The Kids Rob a Train" and "Glued, Where's My Bob?") infuses the story with a fantastic sense of humor. "American Born Chinese" is very funny, and it is self-deprecating without being mean, broad without being dumb, and specific without being alienating.

When Disney+ was first announced, it rode on the promise that audiences would get their favorite franchises under one roof, that they'd get new streaming-exclusive "Star Wars" and Marvel shows and maybe movies. "American Born Chinese" is proof that the service can and should be much more. This is the kind of teen coming-of-age tale that couldn't have worked at any other point in history than today, and it could only be done justice in streaming. 

"American Born Chinese" premieres on Disney+ on May 24, 2023.