From left, Yeo Yann Yann, Chin Han, and Ben Wang as the Wang family in “American Born Chinese.”

Disney’s Adaptation of ‘American Born Chinese’ Flattens a Tale of Identity

Despite it's star-studded cast, the show leaves critic Siddhant Adlakha missing some of the classic comic's key components

From left, Yeo Yann Yann, Chin Han, and Ben Wang as the Wang family in “American Born Chinese.”

Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

American Born Chinese, the star-studded live action series from Disney Plus, is a strange case of overstuffing a graphic novel whose screen adaptation would require streamlining by necessity. The 2006 comic by Gene Luen Yang tells three parallel stories which are eventually connected by the end, and while the show smartly condenses them into a linear narrative—two of them, anyway; it discards a valuable third that may have proved too thorny for family friendly branding—the eight-episode series, which arrives May 24, sanitizes the comic’s complex ruminations on modern Asian American identity. Instead, it favors an all-new, mostly disconnected action saga that feels low in stakes and even lower in energy. Its central story, of a young Chinese American high schooler searching for his place, is too frequently yanked in different directions by this tacked-on tale of warring gods, which, as if in service of some cosmic joke, robs the show of its humanity.

The series takes what was a plot twist in the comic and folds it into its premise, with the ape-like Wei-Chen (Jim Liu) disobeying his father, the monkey king Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu), and traveling from heaven to Earth in human form. Sun Wukong, based on the character of the same name in Wu Cheng’en’s 16th Century novel Journey to the West, rules over his supernatural realm while an uprising led by a rival deity threatens his position. Wei-Chen’s quest to help his father involves going undercover as a high schooler, a secret identity that makes sense to reveal early on in Disney’s version, since the show’s subplot about heavenly battles is spun whole cloth (the comic features no such conflict, and only reveals Wei-Chen’s true identity near the end). What it borrows more directly from Yang’s 230-page story is the lead character of Jin Wang (Ben Wang), an American-born teenager trying to fit in at school when Wei-Chen is introduced in the guise of a foreign student. To Jin’s displeasure, his principal forces him to mentor Wei-Chen, owing to their cultural overlap. (Notably, Wei-Chen’s specifically Taiwanese origin in the comic is flattened to simply Chinese here, presumably to avoid the ire of the Chinese government, who Disney has been courting for some time).

Jin’s initial embarrassment, upon being associated with the loud, naïve, Chinese-accented Wei-Chen, is an extension of his desire to fit in with his largely white soccer team, comprising an array of older students who alternatingly accept and reject him, making him all the more eager to please. However, only the first two of the show’s eight episodes center Jin’s conflicted dynamic in which, through his association with Wei-Chen, he’s forced to confront an overt manifestation of the cultural baggage his peers project onto him. Instead, the story gets increasingly wrapped up in the war between various Chinese gods for most of its runtime. Although this results in lightning-quick, highly choreographed fights in school hallways, it rarely yields action supported by enough ethos for these scenes to matter, beyond the spectacle itself. The show is lush in its visual depiction of both heaven—with its red trees—and the warm suburbs of San Francisco, but that warmth is far too often met with an emotional coldness, when it comes to the larger plot. 

Jim Liu as Wei-Chen.

Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

After a while, Wei-Chen taking the form of an Asian student ceases to matter very much to Jin’s story. And while their tale of fraught friendship from the comic remains intact, what’s mostly lost is the sense that Jin’s desire to “fit in” is effectively an attempt to de-racialize himself in the eyes of his peers, and discard any personality trait even vaguely resembling an Asian stereotype. The series circles this theme on occasion, like when an Asian student union takes offense to a mean-spirited online joke on Jin’s behalf, but this subplot sees little in the way of resolution, and ends up merely cultural window-dressing.

The show’s approach to racism is especially hurt by the decision to excise an important element of Yang’s comic. Its aforementioned third story, running parallel to that of Jin on Earth and the Chinese gods in heaven, is a surreal and darkly funny detour about a Chinese character composed entirely of exaggerated racist stereotypes, between his slur-like name (“Chin-kee”), his buck teeth, and his frequent mispronunciations. A shift in Yang’s art style when depicting this character makes him feel like a decades-old propaganda cartoon come to life, especially when he interacts with Yang’s more naturalistically sketched human characters. It’s a direct confrontation not only of deep-seated caricatures of Chinese people in Western art, but of lingering Asian American fears, of how one might be perceived by White America. Few stories have so directly threaded the needle between racially charged depictions in media and their long-lasting psychological implications—which, in the comic, also colors Jin’s initial rejection of Wei-Chen—but the show fails to create an equivalent story that lands with as visceral an impact.

Few stories have so directly threaded the needle between racially charged depictions in media and their long-lasting psychological implications...but the show fails to create an equivalent story that lands with as visceral an impact.

Granted, adapting “Chin-kee” to live action would have likely required the family friendly Disney to place a yellowface caricature on screen. The mouse house would have been unlikely to do this for fear of causing offense, despite whatever narrative value might have been mined from Yang’s satirical concept—not to mention, that it may have also involved acknowledgement of the company’s own history of racist depictions (such as the Siamese cats in both Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats). Instead, the show’s updated equivalent of “Chin-Kee”—a TV character played by Ke Huy Quan— ends up a scattered, half-hearted attempt to both gesture towards the idea of racially insensitive media, while not actually portraying much real insensitivity, let alone the effect this might have on Jin.

From left, Michelle Yeoh and Daniel Wu as Guanyin and the Monkey King.

Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

When American Born Chinese begins, a largely white ’90s sitcom featuring an Asian comic relief character sees a surge in popularity via TikTok. TV sidekick Freddy Wong, played by fictitious actor Jamie Yao (Quan), becomes the punchline of various memes shared at Jin’s school, along with his signature, Chinese-accented catchphrase, “What could go Wong?” But the whole affair is milquetoast enough, and divorced enough from any truly offensive real-world stereotypes, that Jin is able to largely ignore these jabs, even when they’re aimed in his direction. This makes the inclusion of not only the Freddy Wong character feel perfunctory, but the inclusion of Quan as well, given the show’s attempts to draw parallels between Quan’s career and that of Yao, the fictional actor he plays—a subplot that ends up isolated to a single scene. The show’s allusions to representation and its related struggles take the form of literal statements about Hollywood’s historical lack of inclusion, but they end up wishy-washy thanks to Yao’s mixed feelings towards portraying a caricature like Wong. As if in deference towards Hollywood studios, rather than in critique of them, Yao is at times incredibly thankful for the opportunity, and seldom reckons with the implications of being cast as the goofy face of American Asian-ness for several generations, the way the “Chin-kee” character was designed to do.

In the process, it can’t help but read as Disney patting itself on the back for acknowledging problems it helped create, but without much substance to its depiction of those problems.

This Quan-centric tangent is scattered throughout the runtime, without much direct involvement with Jin’s story, so it plays like an interruption to the ongoing narrative, rather than enhancing it through subtext or character motivation. In the process, it can’t help but read as Disney patting itself on the back for acknowledging problems it helped create, but without much substance to its depiction of those problems. In the first episode, Jin’s mother describes the ingredients of a Taiwanese chicken feet dish in a particularly profound way; she tells Jin: “Sometimes the things you hate are the things you need.” While this appears to lay the foundation for several of the comic’s themes—including and especially the complicated vectors of cultural identity and self-loathing—it ends up amounting to very little, with regards to the way Jin sees himself.

The show is filled with plenty of notable East Asian stars. Many of them, like Quan, also appeared in Everything Everywhere All At Once—Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu and James Hong all play various gods—but few of them are imbued with much purpose beyond either vague exposition about an oncoming supernatural conflict, or lip-service towards complications between Chinese parents and children. Notably, that latter theme does, in fact, appear in a meaningful way outside these godlike goings on. Jin’s working class immigrant parents, Christine (Yeo Yann Yann) and Simon (Chin Han), are involved in their own long-running domestic dispute that leads to frequent passive aggressive bickering, and the show approaches their relationship with touching nuance. It also affords actor Ben Wang the opportunity to create a fully formed, awkward, quick-talking protagonist like Jin with naturalistic ease—a conception of Asian Americanness that walks a fine line between wanting to be invisible in some ways, but recognized in others—even if the show seldom explores Jin’s many apparent hues.

The grounded, human drama works most of the time. The pressure of burgeoning familial conflicts is off-set by subdued moments of joy, jest, and mutual understanding, before the tensions are skillfully reset. However, the more the tale of Wei-Chen and the warring gods encroaches on the Wang family—which is to say, the more Disney’s action-heavy invention subsumes the original story—the more it obscures all hints of recognizable emotion and relatable cultural experience. Instead, it foregrounds an epic that’s more often implied than it is portrayed. The stakes and particulars of the oncoming deity war are so non-specific, and exist so far outside the frame, that they deflate any tension that exists within it. (This is helped in no small part by an entire mid-season flashback episode in the style of a Chinese myth soap opera that adds little to the present story).

From left, Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han as Christine and Simon Wang.

Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

Director Destin Daniel Cretton, who also helmed Marvel’s Shang-Chi, sets an admirable tone with the martial arts action in episode one, but after a while, the series’ once-an-episode fight scenes begin melding together as a disposable mass. No amount of visual kineticism can substitute for clear and understandable ethos, with characters whose hidden vulnerabilities are on full display. Apart from Jin and his parents, this is rarely the show’s M.O., no matter the caliber of actor on screen. Anuj (Mahi Alam), Jin’s geeky South Asian classmate, makes for a worthwhile original addition in the show—he’s an overt foil to Jin, someone frequently bullied for staying true to his interests rather than blending in—but the series also flattens several of the comic’s prominent female characters. Jin’s love interest, Amelia (Sydney Taylor), wants for any personality trait beyond her changing proximity to Jin, while supporting player Suzy Nakamura (Rosalie Chiang) finds her comic equivalent’s more nuanced romantic saga discarded, in favor of a one-note “social justice warrior” role.

The end result is less a tale of an American-born Chinese person, and more that of an American-branded Chinese story.

Throughout the eight episodes, Jin and his relatable high-school worries remain the most alluring part of the show, from the domestic-and-social balancing act demanded of teens from unhappy homes, to his pursuit of acceptance through clothing and other interests. However, as American Born Chinese goes on, it makes the baffling decision to sideline this vital narrative in favor of a bizarre “chosen one” action saga that flies in the face of this everyday, slice-of-life minutia—which happens to be some of the most electrifying, true-to-life storytelling in any recent Disney media.

The end result is less a tale of an American-born Chinese person, and more that of an American-branded Chinese story. Despite his nuances, Jin struggles not to be swallowed whole by a Disneyfied vision of Asian-ness, stripped of its dimensions and sanded down for mass-consumption, in a media landscape where mere gestures towards identities are marketable enough. After all, meaningful explorations of those identities would be too rigorous, too risky, in the context of Disney’s corporatized, family friendly image that thrives on ruffling no feathers. Where the comic asks “Why does Jin hate himself?” and explores a number of possible answers, the series simply responds: “Actually, he doesn’t. Now watch the fireworks instead.

Published on May 23, 2023

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