American Born Chinese Hot Stuff ep 6 Television 

Five Thoughts On American Born Chinese’s “Hot Stuff”

By | July 3rd, 2023
Posted in Television | % Comments

The steam picks up as we tumble to the climax of American Born Chinese season 1, with “Hot Stuff” (Episode 6) bringing together Jin’s school social circles, his feuding parents, and the ruckus in the heavens right into the local Sierra Mona bowling alley. After Episode 5, “Abracadabra,” gained Wei-Chen the Fourth Scroll in the form of Jin’s parents’ jade pendants, but sunk Christine and Simon’s marriage into murky waters, Jin is upset. His disharmony crashes into the disruption between the Bull Demon, Monkey Prince, and other grand beings in an action-packed episode directed by… none other than the venerable Lucy Liu herself!

SPOILERS upcoming for everything through Episode 6 of American Born Chinese, “Hot Stuff,” along with Gene Luen Yang’s original “American Born Chinese” graphic novel.

1. “Dude, not a surprise party, alright? Not a surprise party.” 

One Soccer DudeBro chides the other, goofier Soccer DudeBro that the party Amelia organized for Jin’s birthday ISN’T a surprise. In fact, here in episode 6 out of 8, we’re not in for many surprises. But we ARE treated to a tightly executed and entertaining entree to the final act of the season. It’s all coming together: Wei-Chen gets help from Guanying to confirm the pendants are the Fourth Scroll. Meanwhile, Jin’s parents Christine and Simon drift from each other after the wedge placed in their marriage last episode, as Jin tries to mend their rupture. Amelia’s turning out to be a real friend (at least), bringing Travis and the soccer dudes together with all of Jin’s varied friends, including Suzy Nakamura and Anuj. She also invites Wei-Chen, who comes with apologies and a re-gifted bottle of Christine’s herbal medicine blessed by Guanyin, though Jin is pretty non-plussed at his presence. And it all culminates in Ji Gong showing up with Niu Mowang (the Bull Demon) to fight with Wei-Chen, Sun WuKong (the Monkey Prince), and Sha WuJing (Sandy), another more heavily-adapted Journey to the West character. 

The fight scene is epic, the action is compelling, and the plotlines seem to be clicking into place. I found the episode captivating and competently produced. And yet, while watching this particular episode of this well-told TV tale, I figured out what has felt missing from the show…

2. American Born Chinese in 2023: More Wisdom, Less Edge

So many thoughtful additions and adaptations have been made to the original graphic novel, 2006’s “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang, which feels like a matured Asian American sensibility in 2023. Rather than a simple narrative about internalized prejudice and self-hatred, or ignorant White people and oblivious immigrant parents, or troubling gross stereotypes smashing into an unwitting naif’s fragile world, the show’s elements and characters are recognizably derived from the graphic novel but much more shaded with complexity. Instead of the blatant “Chin-Kee” character from the comic, there’s the subtler (if perhaps equally demeaning and more insidious) Freddy Wong. Instead of Jin turning brusque or Wei-Chen appearing completely uncool, they each show more shades of camaraderie or with-it-ness or respect than we see in the graphic novel. Greg’s sleaze and Travis’ conditional friendship are still cuttingly familiar to many of us, and the mountains of incidental microaggressions are craftily sprinkled. But many creators also lend more richness to the show’s rendition of gender and generational experience. And the Monkey King storyline, lacking some of the spunk of the graphic novel, instead taps into a star-studded cast of transcultural creatives to present a multilayered, playful-yet-respectful re-visioning of these classics.

I applaud all of that.

But what the show feels like it’s missing from the graphic novel, which landed like a gut punch and a liberating confession at the same time when I read it as a 25-year-old back in 2006, might be that certain edge, that sharpness of a very specific perspective. It’s that specific axe to grind, those very personal admissions from a creator of their own unanswerable questions, the intentional juxtapositions of shame and pride, misjudgment and triumph, villainy and humanity. Gene Yang’s book trumpeted like a revelation precisely because it voiced some contradictions that we Chinese Americans didn’t often dare to name, and in all the embarrassment and empathy of a subjectivity who was patently processing those feelings on the page. Some of that edge seems missing from the show. Maybe this makes it better, more sophisticated representation, more broadly identifiable. But something still feels lost to me.

Continued below

3. Hot Stuff Hides Stiffly While Iron Staff Hits and Hurts Unironically

It took me twenty minutes to come up with that. The action scenes in this episode are intense, and there are moments I can’t believe I’m watching a streaming television episode. As the bowling alley party continues in one room, the meticulously choreographed and masterfully performed martial arts battle between five or six characters splashes through the arcade. The outcome tips our sympathies again toward Wei-Chen and mounts our anticipation for the resolution in the penultimate and last episodes, whatever it may be. But in this episode, we’re treated to some scenes worth re-watching. Watch the tight close-ups to eyes and the spinning, whirling camera that resembles kungfu movie classics. Watch the wuxia flips, turns, weapons work, and CGI-enhanced combat. Watch and wonder that we get all this in a Disney+ show.

4. Stephanie Hsu’s Shiji is a Rockstar

At last, we complete the Everything Everywhere All At Once star trinity with Stephanie Hsu appearing as Shiji NiangNiang, Lady Rocky, erstwhile heaven-residing goddess of stones and now proprietor of The Jewel of the Orient jewelry store. The part didn’t need to be substantial for Hsu to wryly shine with that same chameleon charisma that netted her an Oscar nomination (“Robbed!”) The scenes themselves almost feel like a waste, with Guanyin offering her services as a favor to Wei-Chen to validate that the jade pendants are indeed the Fourth Scroll. These two heavyweights sitting across from each other, seemingly effortlessly tossing the ball of manners back and forth, effortlessly amazing actors. I was sad that I cared so little for whether the pendants would prove to be the Fourth Scroll, because I would happily watch Stephanie Hsu and Michelle Yeoh just acting their hearts out for hours.

5. Mid-Credits Meta Scene

In case you missed it, a super important mid-credits scene hits pretty early in the credits, as we cut to Jamie (Ke Huy Quan’s actor character, who played “Beyond Repair”‘s Freddy Wong) teaching that Shakespeare class we heard about in the last episode, waxing about the fault not in our stars but ourselves. It brings tears to my eyes to imagine this is where someone like Jamie lands. To listen to his phone call with his agent about this “Beyond Repair” reunion in the works, and Jamie wrestling with whether to revisit that shameful part of his acting past… it was heart-wrenching for me to watch. What incredible meta-introspection from the likes of Ke Huy Quan, Lucy Liu, and all the assembled heroes and hall-of-famers of Chinese American filmmaking here. I can’t wait to see where this thread takes us.

Please come back next week for American Born Chinese episode 7, intriguingly titled “Beyond Repair.”


//TAGS | American Born Chinese

Paul Lai


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