How American Born Chinese remixes the mythology of the Monkey King
Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is one of the most iconic figures in world literature. The shapeshifting trickster hero is a central character in the classic 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West, in which he and two other spirits protect a Buddhist monk on pilgrimage from China to India in search of ancient scriptures.
With his size-changing staff and near-limitless ability to transform his body, Sun Wukong is very memorable — not least because of the way he has influenced countless characters since. Dragon Ball hero Son Goku is explicitly modeled after Sun Wukong (it's right there in the name, as well as in Goku's monkey tail and use of the Power Pole), while Naruto protagonist Naruto Uzumaki's signature Shadow Clone Jutsu mirrors one of the Monkey King's most-used moves (distracting opponents with a bunch of illusory copies of yourself).
Sun Wukong is also a key character in American Born Chinese, both the original graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang and the upcoming TV series adaptation by Kelvin Yu, where he is played by actor Daniel Wu (Into the Badlands). But this is the Monkey King like you've never seen him before.
Carlos Lopez-Calleja/disney Daniel Wu as the Monkey King in 'American Born Chinese'
"I've actually been asked to play Sun Wukong many times when I was working in China, but it was almost always the Journey to the West story," Wu tells EW. "That story has been told literally thousands of times on film, on TV, in books, everything. So I didn't think there was anything new I could bring to the character, but what's interesting about American Born Chinese is that Gene Luen Yang wrote Sun Wukong in a different stage of life."
Wu continues, "He's no longer the young, rebellious, naughty guy that he was. He's a father now, and the leader of security up in Heaven, so he has a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders. It's indicative of what real life is like. Even though I'm playing a mythological character, I totally relate to that relationship where you're trying to balance this work life while also dealing with a child growing up."
Sun Wukong's son, Wei-Chen (Jim Liu), has fled to the human world after stealing his father's staff. He subsequently poses as a new transfer student at the high school of American Born Chinese protagonist Jin Wang (Ben Wang). This is Liu's first American production, and English is not his first language. Much like his character, he had to adapt to a new environment.
"When he came to the set, it reminded me so much of when I first went to Asia to work there," Wu says. "My Chinese wasn't that good, and I was confused on set like half the time, trying to fit in. It was the same thing for Jimmy, I could see the nerves and also see him trying to be cool about it. But he's a hard worker and he has a tremendous amount of charisma, so that helps a lot."
Just as Wu recognized what Liu was going through, Liu in turn had a familiarity with Wu's screen work in Asian films. The actors bonded the same way so many fathers and sons do: With sports.
"Daniel Wu is a huge star in Asia," Liu tells EW. "My mom, my whole family, my friends, they all know him. So when I realized I was going to be in the same show with Daniel, I was super shocked and excited. When I first met him, he was super warm and kind. We watched NBA basketball games together, and we root for the same team, the Golden State Warriors. We watched basketball together and played around on set. He was really easy to work with and I was very happy to work with him."
Carlos Lopez-Calleja/disney Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh) and Wei-Chen (Jim Liu) in 'American Born Chinese.'
Yang's original American Born Chinese graphic novel would alternate between stories from Jin's high school life and tales of the Monkey King from Journey to the West, in order to draw the connection between Jin's struggles with assimilation and Sun Wukong's own journey to self-knowledge. The American Born Chinese TV series expands the fantasy half of the story to include other characters from Chinese mythology, such as Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh), a goddess of mercy who does not appear in Yang's graphic novel but is a big part of Journey to the West (in fact, she helps kick off the titular pilgrimage).
American Born Chinese is thus utilizing some of the oldest and most iconic figures from world literature, but in new and different ways.
"It is daunting, because people in Asia have not seen that either," Wu says of American Born Chinese's take on the Monkey King. "So it might take a little bit for them to adapt to it. But once they feel the universality of the theme, they'll understand where this version of Sun Wukong is coming from."
Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney Daniel Wu as Sun Wukong in 'American Born Chinese.'
American Born Chinese does show the Monkey King in his more recognizable form, though. One episode in particular, set almost entirely in Heaven amongst the gods, is a flashback to an earlier phase in Sun Wukong's life.
"I thought it was cool because it completes my character," Wu says of the flashback. "When we start, he's more stern and stoic, but he wasn't always that way. As a youngster, he was very much like his son, and you get to see that rambunctious, rebellious, naughty side of the Monkey King."
Wu continues, "being able to play this character from young to old is really cool, and it gives the American audience a little background. I hope that, once people finish watching American Born Chinese, that they go and watch one of the many versions of Journey to the West so they get an idea of who Monkey King actually is."
American Born Chinese premieres on Disney+ on May 24.
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