Review gap on ‘ABC’ shows need for more than cultural mixture
Published: May 29, 2023 11:12 PM
Illustration: Liu XiangYa/Global Times

Illustration: Liu XiangYa/Global Times

The recent Disney+ show American Born Chinese has received vastly different reviews in North America and China, with a 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic score of 72, but a low 5.6 rating on Chinese review website Douban.

The show features an impressive cast of predominantly Asian actors, including Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh, best supporting actor Ke Huy Quan and the well-known actor Daniel Wu, thus creating high anticipation among Chinese audiences. 

However, after the show began streaming, the drama seems to have failed to deliver a compelling narrative that resonates with the vast Chinese audiences.

The Chinese name of American Born Chinese can be translated as "Journey to the West ABC," which is misleading to audience back in China that the drama is an adaptation of the classic novel Journey to the West and they would mainly focus on the mythological figures, like the famed Monkey King. 

However, the drama instead is actually an adaptation of Gene Luen Yang's groundbreaking graphic novel of the same name and mainly follows two American high school boys of Asian descent.

The show wants to tell a story about how a very ordinary Asian boy decides to break through his current status quo in life and explore his Asian identity, while all the mythological elements and gods from Journey to the West are just supporting roles to help discuss race issues and self-expression for Asian groups.

The show's attempt to blend cultural elements without much thought or sensitivity has resulted in a carelessly thrown together production. 

The question that Chinese audiences cared the most is "When and how did Monkey King have a rebellious son?"

From Mulan to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to American Born Chinese, the essence is the same: US studios filming classic Chinese culture is more like an accumulation of the cultural symbols without serious attempt of deeper exploration based on respect for the original works. 

It seems that under the Hollywood system, other cultures are like a shell that can be molded into any desired image at will. 

On the contrary, Chinese Americans have been giving the show high scores due to how it reflects the unfair treatment they experience in US society. 

Many say they are grateful that such a drama about the Asian community can stand out and give voice to their struggles in the US. 

Most other viewers have used the word "funny" to describe the drama, while the "fantastic and dazzling" Chinese mythological elements have been "exciting" for them. 

This again shows that the target audience for American Born Chinese is Western audiences. 

While the show may have good intentions in portraying and representing Asian Americans, such as Asian identity, teen growth, and social barriers, it fails to delve deeper into any of them, resulting in a lackluster production that misses the mark. 

Its attempts to appeal to various audiences ultimately lead to an unfocused mishmash. 

Meanwhile, the fact that all the episodes have been released on Disney+ at one time shows the lack of confidence of the producers. 

There is an action scene at the end of each episode, which shows that program is undoubtedly meant for weekly broadcast.

Though there is a sharp gap in scores, both sides seem to agree that the special effects are outdated. In the fourth episode, the costumes of all the gods in Heaven look off. 

Meanwhile, this episode incorporates Hong Kong-style nonsensical elements, which hints that the production team wanted to add a sense of humor into the show. 

However, when native Chinese viewers see Chinese actors dress in clothing that is a mix of European and American styles mixed with Southeast Asian styles and then speak fluent English but not so fluent Chinese, it feels like something is off. 

The ending of American Born Chinese seems to have laid the groundwork for a second season. 

But whether a second season will be any different remains a question mark.