Not long ago, if you saw an Asian face on screen in a Western TV show or movie, they tended to be a shopkeeper, waiter or a gangster.
Screen stereotypes persisted for as long as the industry has been around and it’s only in recent years that audiences have seen more nuanced portrayals.
After Crazy Rich Asians, there has been a stream of projects fronted by Asian diaspora actors playing characters that were more than just a one-dimensional trope – they were dreamers, ratbags, rageful, sensitive, funny, anxious, fierce, depressed and more.
The characters in the likes of Beef, Always Be My Maybe, The Farewell, Joyride and Shortcomings were able to embody the full range of emotions and facets. They were able to be human.
So, even when the logline for The Brothers Sun is triads and gangsters, it’s no longer the case that you would automatically roll your eyes.
Starring Michelle Yeoh, the eight-part Netflix series is about a Californian teen, Bruce (Sam Song Li), trying to make it through medical school but is struggling to come up with that term’s tuition after he spent the money on improv comedy classes.
His mum Eileen (Yeoh) wants him to be a doctor, but his aspiration is acting. This small family drama is about to become much higher stakes when Bruce discovers he is the son of Taiwan’s biggest crime boss who has barely survived an assassination attempt and is now in a coma.
With the triad empire threatened, Bruce’s older, estranged brother Charles (Justin Chien) arrives in Los Angeles from Taipei to protect his mother and little bro. The assassins follow Charles and they’re intent on bringing down the Sun family.
A drama-cum-comedy, The Brothers Sun is sometimes cheesy and ludicrous, but it gives plenty of room for its characters to breathe.
We’re introduced to Yeoh’s matriarch character as a typical tiger mum meddling in her youngest son’s life but we soon learn there’s a lot more going on. Like, she can dismember a corpse with gusto.
The Oscar winner’s range means she can play Eileen’s comedic beats as well as the deep emotional ones, such as later episode in which she returns to Taipei and we see the backstory of why she moved Bruce to California, and the personal cost of that decision.
The brothers too are allowed to have layers. Charles may present as a hardened enforcer but he’s also fighting his own worst instincts and contending with a label and role that’s been forced on him, rather than it being something he wanted. What he really loves is the Great British Bake Off and perfecting shortcrust pastry.
And Bruce. Well, Bruce isn’t at all built for the triad life, he can’t even throw a real punch. He has to discover what it means when the life you think you had was never the whole story, and how there is no way back.
Created by Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk (The Brothers Sun is the first series he’s worked on without creative partner Ryan Murphy in 15 years), the writers room consisted of only creatives with Asian backgrounds while directors Kevin Tancharoen and Viet Nguyen are also from diaspora communities.
What that translates to is the more heightened aspects of the series (big fight scenes, set pieces involving exotic lizards) are grounded against resonant moments whether that’s sitting down to share a family meal or goofing around on karaoke.
The Brothers Sun is not a perfect series but it benefits greatly from the gravitas of Yeoh and the way it treats its characters as more than just stereotypes.
The Brothers Sun is streaming now on Netflix
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