Joon Lee, Sam Song Li, Michelle Yeoh and Justin Chien in "The Brothers Sun" sit at a dinner table with a variety of dishes, including duck, noodles and more.

Action-comedy ‘The Brothers Sun’ Offers Delayed Gratification

Netflix’s new series with Michelle Yeoh is worth watching all the way through

From left, Joon Lee, Sam Song Li, Michelle Yeoh and Justin Chien in "The Brothers Sun."

Courtesy of Netflix

Triads, improv, and baking collide in The Brothers Sun, an action-comedy-drama about two brothers raised worlds apart—one in LA’s working class, the other in a rich and ruthless Taipei crime ring—and their resilient, resourceful mother played by Michelle Yeoh. The charming eight-part Netflix series, told in a mix of English and Mandarin, was created by Brad Falchuk and Byron Wu, and though it takes a while to find its footing, it proves to be a fun (and occasionally meaningful) saga about familial expectations, with a distinctly Asian American bent despite its heavy Chinese and Taiwanese influence. Its drama is sometimes awkward, but the show is kept afloat by propulsive action scenes, which are always a treat to watch.

The show aims high with its bone-crunching opening sequence: a relentlessly paced, humor-infused hand-to-hand fight scene in an opulent Taipei penthouse, in which assassin Charles “Chair-leg” Sun (Justin Chien)—you’ll want to stick around to see how he got his nickname—dispenses with a gang of masked hoodlums while trying out a new cake recipe he finds on The Great British Bake-Off. This battle, shot with fluidity and panache, sets the stage for a story in which the wannabe confectioner is torn between his hidden personal desires, and his loyalty to his crime boss father. With their family empire in danger from mysterious new enemies, Charles is sent to California to protect his mother, Eileen (Yeoh), a nurse and former Triad bigwig in hiding, and the younger brother he hasn’t seen since they were children, Bruce (Sam Song Li).

Charles is a suave, stone-faced gangster with a tempter, but his baby brother (now studying biochemistry college) is none the wiser about their family’s entanglements. Shy, nervous, and studious, the most he’s ever lied about is spending a few thousand dollars of tuition money on improv classes so he can become a stage comedian, rather than a doctor, as his mother desires. When Bruce is suddenly pulled into Charles’ and Eileen’s vicious world of criminality, the clash between his careful reserve and the casualness with which his family disposes of dead bodies sends him into a tailspin. The first episode, directed by Kevin Tancharoen, creates a sardonic sensibility through audacious visual contrast—the sudden influx of blood and body parts strewn about Bruce’s quaint two-bedroom home makes him hilariously confused—though this darkly funny tone doesn’t fully permeate the remaining episodes.

As The Brothers Sun gets deeper into its story, with Bruce struggling to adapt to his new “normal” and Charles battling highly motivated masked cultists out to harm his family, it takes turns towards the sentimental, for better and for worse. The show’s central dynamic, between Yeoh, Chien, and Li, has a natural rhythm, with the latter duo playing a pair of wildly different brothers (whose actors have instant chemistry), and the veteran Yeoh oscillating between the modes of depravity and domesticity they each represent. Unfortunately, when it comes to most of their dialogue with characters outside this organic triptych, it tends to fall on the wrong side of stilted, with a focus on extraneous exposition, and a “Hey, remember the time when we—” approach to building relationships through words.

Justin Chien in "The Brothers Sun" stands in a dining room in a green apron with a body lying on a table next to him and a bar and kitchen behind him.

Justin Chien in "The Brothers Sun."

Courtesy of Netflix

This modus operandi—of creating character and backstory through dialogue rather than behavior and through implication instead of empathy—most affects the character Alexis Kong (Highdee Kuan), a woman from Charles’ past and his love interest on the other side of the law. Kuan appears to be a capable actress, but her performance (and thus, her ability to inject Charles’ story with real dilemma and pathos) ends up severely hindered. The show’s ensemble is colorful, from Bruce’s gaudily-dressed, gang-adjacent Korean friend T.K. (Joon Lee), to Charles’ tough-but-lively enforcers Xing (Jenny Yang) and “Blood Boots” (Jon Xue Zhang), to Bruce’s own romantic interest, his upbeat classmate Grace (Madison Hu). But their performances are all forced to rub shoulders with dialogue that appears to have never made it past a first draft. In keeping with this half-baked approach to world building, the show is rife with verbal and visual references to Chinese, Taiwanese, and Asian American cultural hallmarks, but they often feel tacked on to scenes at random, in service of creating a nebulous form of recognition, instead of serving the characters or their story. There are only so many extended montages of Mahjong blocks or delectable Chinese cooking you can throw into a crime saga before they start to feel disruptive.

However, the show creates a more specific form of cultural recognition through its casting. The younger ensemble is largely Asian American (with a few exceptions, like Zhang, who hails from England) and they notably play even Chinese and Taiwanese-born characters with their natural western accents when they speak English. Although this robs the show of some of its authenticity—it goes to great lengths to portray the ins and outs of Triad structure and tradition—this approach speaks to the anxieties underlying its conception, as well as its creative credo. Upon the series being announced, co-creator Wu thanked Netflix for championing an “Asian-American centric, Asian-American written, Asian-American directed show.” Despite many characters hailing from mainland Asia, populating most parts with Asian American actors—whose vocal approach is that of a local stage production, with no effort made to disguise their own origins—affords The Brothers Sun a surprisingly nuanced cultural exploration despite its lack of realism, as though the series were holding a mirror to Third Culture Kids when they come of age and are forced to confront the full picture of their parents’ lives. Even minor characters like Xing and Blood Boots—Taiwanese characters with American and English accents—are given desires and idiosyncrasies that bring what’s expected of them into conflict with who they are and what they want. At the center of it all is the story of Bruce and Charles, brothers raised in wildly different environments, who are forced to reckon with different forms of cultural rigidity, as they become tempted by each other’s lifestyles. 

Sam Song Li and Michelle Yeoh in "The Brothers Sun" stand together, with a china cabinet and corner of a dining table behind them.

From left, Sam Song Li and Michelle Yeoh in "The Brothers Sun."

Courtesy of Netflix

Unfortunately, it takes until the show’s sixth episode (directed by Viet Nguyen) for the story and action to fully coalesce. From there on out, The Brothers Sun becomes explosive, with numerous twists and turns that stem from character rather than convenience. But up until that point, it limps through many of its narrative scenes, with little by way of energy or visual storytelling beyond the dialogue itself. Whenever an exception emerges—like a tremendously affecting scene of a character returning to Taipei after years away, as the camera pushes in on them as they take in the city’s sights and sounds—it’s a reminder of how little the rest of the series employs the tools at its disposal to convey the characters’ inner worlds.

All the episodes are directed by either Tancharoen and Nguyen, but the show’s unsung heroes are its stunt and second unit team, the crew members largely responsible for choreographing and shooting the action. They make it feel like a different show entirely, which bursts to life with impact and momentum—not to mention, with some of the most innovative and exciting drone photography this side of Jerzy Skolimowski—as the characters and the spaces around them begin to work in tandem, creating a tactile sense of comedy and drama that, rather than being told through dialogue, becomes intrinsically felt. (In the interest of giving these crew members their due credit, they are: second unit director and stunt coordinator Justin Yu, stunt coordinator J.J. Perry, co-stunt coordinator Travis Wong, fight coordinators Kyle Potter and Eric Brown, and fight coordinator and Charles’ stunt double Michael Lehr, among many others).

There’s a lot in the show’s first four episodes that feels like it could’ve been truncated to avoid comedic repetition and dramatic dead air. But by the time it gets to its second half, The Brothers Sun becomes mostly—if not entirely—worthwhile, with Chien's and Li’s performances driving the story and its delayed emotional dilemmas. While decisions are mostly arrived at between scenes, rather than contemplated or considered, the resultant plot has enough by way of culturally driven conflict to make the series feel intriguing and, on occasion, fully alive.

Johnny Kou in a light green suit, with four Asian men behind him in dark clothing, stand in an elevator.

Johnny Kou (center) is Big Sun in "The Brothers Sun."

Courtesy of Netflix

Published on January 4, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter