You can tell folks behind “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” had something to do with “American Born Chinese.”
The new Disney+ series has a similarly loopy narrative and a whole lot of special effects. Oddly, it starts in a high school where Asian American student Jin Wang (Ben Wang) is asked to take a newcomer, Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) under wing and introduce him to the finer points of teenage life.
What isn’t stated: Wei-Chen isn’t just any outsider. He’s the son of Wukong the Monkey King (Daniel Wu) who needs help thwarting the Bull Demon (Leonard Wu). He’s not just from another country, he’s from an entirely different realm. Can Jin juggle that, schoolwork, home life and a budding relationship?
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s hand on this is obvious. “ABC” has impressive stunts and a couple of cameos that elevate the story. Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh plays the Goddess of Mercy – but here as an aunt who can calm the world but can’t quite seem to assemble an IKEA table. Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan turns up as a TV actor who’s stuck with wincingly bad lines and a racist storyline. They’re part of “other” worlds that inform Jin’s typical high school one.
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Based on Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning graphic novel, “ABC” expands his concept and uses its panels as storyboards for something much greater. It works.
In eight episodes, “ABC” turns a typical high school drama into a lesson about behavior. While otherworldly creatures stalk the halls of his high school, Jin learns how to deal with the mere mortals who harass him.
Creator Kelvin Yu doesn’t drill down on the high school baddies (they’re as bad as they were in Brat Pack films) but he does find a way to address them.
Younger viewers will love the action that colors the series; older ones will appreciate its philosophy.
Underlying all of this is the racism that burns through Jin’s school. It’s not as overt as the mockery Quan’s character faces (with a catchphrase, no less) but it points up the challenge Asian American students face every day.
By pulling worlds together, “American Born Chinese” manages to educate while entertaining. That off-handed comment, it says, may be more lethal than you ever knew.
Wang is a great tour guide through these disparate worlds. He approaches each with skepticism, then learns from his and others’ mistakes. When Yeoh shows up, “ABC” becomes a master class about the golden rule. Attention must be paid.
“American Born Chinese” begins May 24 on Disney+.