Five Thoughts On American Born Chinese’s “What Guy Are You”

By | May 29th, 2023
Posted in Television | % Comments

Leap in, Multiversity friends, for our weekly five thoughts for each episode of Disney+’s American Born Chinese, adapting the 2006 graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, an executive producer on the show. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton of Shang Chi, and starring a cast of new faces (Ben Wang, Jimmy Liu) and lauded stars (Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan), the eight-episode series attempts to bring a landmark comic book– hailed by critics and fans and now taught in many classrooms– to television with some tricky questions of representation and adaptation. How does the show stay true to the revelatory consciousness and circumspection of the original graphic novel? How does it update portrayals of intra-ethnic relationships and racial prejudices fifteen years later? Does it stand on its own two feet as a streaming TV show, marketed as family fare AND for sophisticated audiences like fans of Everything Everywhere All at Once? Let’s find out as we dig deep this season into American Born Chinese.

Need we say it? SPOILERS ahead, but just for the first episode of American Born Chinese, as well as the graphic novel.

1. Transmutating the Monkey King Myth
The show opens in the same sphere the graphic novel does, the mythological one of the story’s interweaving narratives (we’ll get to the others). This is the one creatively retelling and extending the Sun Wukong Monkey King legend most known from the Chinese Classic “Journey to the West.” When Yang starts the graphic novel with the mischievous, magical, embittered Monkey on the outs among the gods, what fits this myth material with the everydayness of the rest is Yang’s cartoony humor and comics style. Hard to picture this same tonal fit in live action. But craftily, instead the adaptation rests on the filmic spectacle of wuxia-style action, along with the kind of creature-animation plus gripping martial arts that made RRR and Crouching Tiger hits. We meet the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), but he’s mired in his own intergenerational conflict with his son, a Monkey Prince making off with his fabled Iron Staff. There’s as much of Gene Yang’s recent DC comics superhero creation (“Monkey Prince”) in this story as there is of the graphic novel’s version of Sun Wukong, but how this change pays off will be one of the threads to watch throughout the series.

2. Jin Wang, Hot Stuff
While the CGI and fight choreography bring the Monkey King mythology to life in vibrant and culturally recognizable ways, those missing doses of humor have to be supplied heavily by main character Jin Wang (Ben Wang), including (to my delight) many of his hilarious interactions with his mother, played by Yann Yann Yeo. I watched the first episode with my family, and one of them commented, “I was surprised it wasn’t funnier.” Indeed, Jin’s story of trying to fit in as a Chinese-American in a very majority-white school is full of tense or downright dour storylines, updated versions of, or additions to, Yang’s graphic novel: The unrequited crush on Amelia, the fraught “friendships” with “cool” white kids Greg and Travis, the yearning for idealized clothes and (blond, curly) hair, the embarrassing attachment to nerdy culture (embodied by estranged cosplaying friend Anuj), and the perpetual nettled relationship to his race and its proxies (see below).

The show adds marital turmoil between his parents, striking similar notes about immigrant culture, gender, and value as Everything Everywhere. And a few other Jin-centered elements and themes, such as the potential acceptance-earning route of soccer and the brutal costs of social media shame, portend multiple dimensions of identity struggles for Jin. But actually, what’s refreshing about Jin’s portrayal in the show is that he exudes more confidence, wit, and grit than his graphic novel original, not only because he’s in 10th grade instead of 6th, but also because his sense of belonging as an Asian American feels much more 2023 than 2008 or 1996. More on this in weeks to come, but suffice it to say, Ben Wang knocks (kicks?) it out of the park, full of charm and verve.

3. “Everyone is staring.” “Yeah. Good. Let them.” 
While I like the depths that the show adds to Jin, I’m even more gratified by Wei-Chen’s development for the series from the graphic novel’s version. For context, Wei-Chen (played perfectly by Jimmy Liu) is the immigrant Chinese student that Jin is awkwardly forced to have “shadow” him at his new school and country, whose very visible Chinese-ness (East Asian style hair, clothes, interests, accent, etc) instantly marks him as “foreign” and threatens to taint Jin’s tenuous “cool” (read: White) by association. What the show does smartly is to update Wei-Chen so that, instead of the naive ethnic dupe who ultimately reveals more cognizance and gains his comeuppance, he’s so much more from the jump, from this pilot. First, rather than outdated trappings of the (I’ll avoid saying the slur directly) stereotypical recently arrived overseas immigrant–  clueless and unfashionably dressed with poor English– this TV show Wei-Chen is more like the savvy, urbane, and defiantly proud Asian youth I more often meet today. He snaps back at the laughing Travis and his pack of provincial trolls. He’s a more cosmopolitan kind of hip, unashamed of his mech figures or pop idol haircut. And best of all, he’s every bit the Monkey Prince spirit in human flesh, here to wage a different kind of battle, perhaps in parallel with the uprising in heaven his Monkey King father wrestles with. I can’t wait to see

Continued below

4. Righting Wrongs of “What could go Wong?”
A substantive change from Yang’s original, explored in the New York Times piece linked earlier, comes in the role played by Ke Huy Quan. Quan plays the stereotypical Chinese side character in a 90s sitcom called “Beyond Repair,” one of those unfunny slapstick dupes of the era like Steve Urkel, whose tagline when bonked with a ceiling fan is “What could go Wong?” The racist character, probably relegated to shameful dustbins of cultural history in the show’s world, gets resurrected and meme-ified as old clips of Wong get attached to videos like Jin’s embarrassing accident with a laundry cart. Freddy Wong replaces the role played in Yang’s original by Chin-Kee, the element of “American Born Chinese” that provoked the most controversy. Yang’s intentions were clear in the book’s context, to satirize the absurd, haunting, degrading stereotypes of Chinese men replete in American media, including comics. But the image of Chin-kee itself was extracted, the caricature abused as racist shorthand. In replacing Chin-kee with Quan, the show’s creators (including Yang, Cretton, showrunner Kelvin Yu, and co-writer in this episode Charles Yu) seem to be setting up a multi-layered meta-aware expansion of that satirical move, as Kelvin Yu has described. This, too, is a thread we’ll watch for throughout the season.

5. Let’s Get Down to Business
The pilot is full of pleasures, whether you’ve read the book or not. Readers will see quick payoffs, perhaps surprisingly quick. For one, the more complex role represented by the mech figure (with even more meanings added to the original Transformers-like toy that Yang employed smartly in the OGN). For another, the appearance of Michelle Yeoh’s Guanyin from episode 1, defending Wei-Chen from his irritated father. Nerds like me will love Jin’s bookshelf carrying “Spawn” and “Amulet” volumes, or “Naruto”-loving friend Anuj (Mahi Alam) in cosplay. Chinese immigrants like my dad (and me) will immediately recognize “Tian Mi Mi,” the song Jin’s mother sings along with on the car ride, or the substance of her arguments with Jin’s father (played by Chin Han) about ambition and realism and bamboo ceilings. What got my blood pumping the most was that many of the graphic novel’s surprises were already laid out in this pilot, with plenty of tracks laid for more. I can’t wait to see where the creators take this. Let’s go!

Join us here each week as we review each of the first season’s eight episodes.

//TAGS | American Born Chinese

Paul Lai


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