Instead of shunning martial arts as cliché or stereotypical, many Asian creatives have leaned into that audience familiarity to help tell complex stories surrounding their experiences in this country and beyond. Michelle Yeoh has played a role in some of these recent efforts, including Disney+’s “American Born Chinese” and Marvel’s box office smash “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Now the “Everything Everywhere All At Once” star and historic Oscar winner is back at it, bringing her Hollywood clout to “The Brothers Sun” on Netflix.
Newcomer Byron Wu’s dark action comedy (reportedly in the works since at least 2018, before linking with the highly bankable Brad Falchuk of “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” “American Horror Story” fame) is a stylized gangster series in which Los Angeles and Taipei are worthy sister cities both poshly modern and Asian-centric. The action jumpstarts when an unexpected assassination attempt leaves powerful Taiwanese triad leader Big Sun in a coma, forcing his eldest son and legendary killer Charles Sun (Justin Chien) to LA to protect his mom Eileen (Yeoh) and younger brother Bruce (Sam Song Li) from impending danger, as he tries to figure out where the threat to their empire lies.
He soon discovers that the dangers and comforts of Taipei extend all the way to America. But so do the differences, most notably in his brother Bruce who, shielded from the family business, is a free spirit completely oblivious to the traditions that have weighed Charles down. Bruce is empowered enough to secretly defy their mother’s expectation of him becoming a doctor to explore improv.
Discovering that he comes from a powerful and highly feared crime family fundamentally changes Bruce. Having a brother with whom he has limited memories and virtually no emotional connection, however, is most troubling to him. Yet it’s their blood bond and different outlooks and experiences with the world that power this journey, drastically altering them as both brothers and as men.
Yeoh’s presence as Eileen, aka Mama Sun, in many ways mirrors her role in the series itself. She’s around enough to flex her weight, but also hidden enough to allow her lesser-known costars to lead without losing her impact. Embedded in her role is also a subtle yet eye-opening interrogation of Asian-centered misogyny and patriarchy. As she works to protect herself and her youngest son, Eileen illustrates how women can lead as effectively or more so as a man without employing brute force and bloodshed. This doesn’t mean that they can’t deliver an ass-whipping or two if needed.
Yet “The Brothers Sun” carries some gendered faults, with its main female characters largely depicted as double-crossers and liars. Yeoh’s Eileen has duped both her sons and her husband, which is both admirable and cringey. Charles and Bruce’s potential girlfriends are also complex and conniving.
Alexis (Highdee Kuan), Charles’ crush, is a childhood playmate who knew him as a chubby kid, not a killer. And while their interactions greatly humanize him, allowing us to imagine who he could have been, she’s also an officer of the law hellbent on bringing down all criminal enterprises. With these competing goals, tension and perhaps even betrayal is inevitable. As their dynamic plays out, however, Charles is sure to enlist far more sympathy than Alexis.
Grace (an impressive Madison Hu), Bruce’s love interest, is more than convincing in her devotion to him. The progression of their relationship unveils his naivete in all aspects of life. That almost no woman can be trusted is further underscored as even the family’s trusted hired gun Xing (Jenny Yang) has her questionable moments. June (Alice Hewkin), the tattooed drug dealer who’s a bit bloodthirsty at times, is the lone woman who never misrepresents herself or her intentions and manages to live up to the very admired code this world values.
Of course, stellar martial arts sequences are an absolute must, and “The Brothers Sun” doesn’t disappoint, going well beyond the required with imaginative and fresh choreography and scenarios that wow. Chien’s action star potential and mesmerizing sex appeal are on full display as he battles new threats often as a spectacular army of one, making it abundantly clear why Charles is a lethal legend with an unbelievably high body count.
Beyond his ill-fated, murderous duty to protect his family, Charles is very much a reformed fat kid with a love of baking. Pastries, however, aren’t the only tasty items on the menu, making “foodie” a new and surprising twist to the genre. Here food deepens the on-screen Asian authenticity, even serving as an education to those willing to receive it.
Ultimately, “The Brothers Sun” excels at presenting a fully formed Asian-centric ecosystem, which is completely realistic in American enclaves like Los Angeles. Here the criminals, the crimefighters and potential lovers are Asian. Through Bruce’s relationship with his inept ace TK (Joon Lee), who covets the gangster lifestyle, the show even spotlights Taiwanese-Korean tension for those who can catch it. Arguably it’s a POV only an Asian American creative like Wu could conceive and fully bring to life in collaboration with Asian directors and, save for Falchuk, an Asian American writers room and almost exclusively Asian cast.
This progress doesn’t fully erase the fabled American myth about life being much better here than anywhere else in the world, including Asia, even for those of Asian heritage. While the push-and-pull between the pros and cons of what Taipei and Los Angeles can offer subtly surfaces from time to time, a pronounced pro-American stance does seep in — especially towards the end.
None of this is enough to chip away from the quality and sheer pleasure “The Brothers Sun” delivers. Chien and Li have an easy and believable chemistry that also extends to Yeoh. Even when some episodes lull at points, you’re never tempted to stop watching because you are wholly invested in this family, this story and its outcome. That makes “The Brothers Sun” not just another triumph for Asian American audiences, but one for us all.
“The Brothers Sun” premieres Thursday, Jan. 4, on Netflix.