Michelle Yeoh Could Do ‘The Brothers Sun’ in Her Sleep


Mild spoiler warning for The Brothers Sun, all eight episodes of which are available now on Netflix.

Michelle Yeoh can do everything The Brothers Sun asks of her in her sleep. An emotionally withholding Asian mom dissatisfied with life in America who reveals martial arts skills and/or inner complexities her children never could have intuited? Yeoh played versions of this character in Everything Everywhere All at Once and Crazy Rich Asians, plus maternal authoritative figures in American Born Chinese, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The School for Good and Evil, and Gunpowder Milkshake. The Brothers Sun’s Eileen Sun follows this pattern, and as the show’s most fully realized character, Yeoh uses a frank sense of humor and cunning to shift between domineering and domestic. Yet the ease she brings to the role contrasts with the rest of this thematically, tonally, and narratively muddled series.

Co-created by Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk, The Brothers Sun stars Yeoh as the mother of two extremely different sons: elder brother Charles (Justin Chien), who grew up in Taiwan alongside his father (Johnny Kou), the leader of the country’s most powerful triad, the Jade Dragons, and younger brother Bruce (Sam Song Li), raised by Eileen in L.A., where the two hid themselves among its hardworking immigrant middle class. When The Brothers Sun introduces Charles, he’s watching The Great British Baking Show (one thing Netflix is going to do is promote itself) and baking a cake before fighting off intruders who break into his apartment — did you get that this man is conflicted about who he actually is versus who his father wants him to be? After an attack leaves his father hospitalized, Charles travels to California to protect his mother and brother. Bruce, unaware of his family’s connections to organized crime, is struggling with parental expectations too; while Eileen wants him to be a doctor, Bruce uses all his tuition money on improv classes. Despite being more similar than they realize, Charles and Bruce observe each other with resentment on both sides.

The Brothers Sun is named for this fraternal dynamic, and it spends time with Charles and Bruce individually and together to contrast their personalities. Chien’s physicality invigorates the series’ action sequences, which are edited a little too quickly and frantically but, when they slow down, have some unexpected character beats, such as Charles lighting a cigarette for a would-be assassin before kicking his head into a knife. A lengthy fight scene in sixth episode “Country Boy” revolves entirely around Charles storming a driving range full of gangsters and taking them out one by one; the camera is in constant movement above him, flying around as he moves from the first floor of the compound to the second, hitting golf balls into his opponents’ heads. Li nails Bruce’s dorky, motormouthed need to please before efficiently moving into a whiny, spoiled mama’s boy, a turn that complicates the character and reflects the uglier side of his personality.

Yet, for the most part, The Brothers Sun primarily relies on Charles’s and Bruce’s hobbies, hometowns, and birth-order baggage to stand in for meaningful depth and introspection. Eileen is better considered, with everything from her nursing profession and estranged relationship with her own mother to her close bond with two Jade Dragons enforcers (Jon Xue Zhang and Jenny Yang) offering a solid sense of why this woman makes the decisions she does. Yeoh is so convincing that even when The Brothers Sun recycles portions of her previous characters (like outfitting her in the same kind of chic power suit she wore in Crazy Rich Asians to signify that she’s ready to step into a triad leadership role), Eileen doesn’t get lost in mimicry.

Because The Brothers Sun has the strongest grasp of Eileen’s character, Chien’s and Li’s performances are best when they’re paired with Yeoh. She switches between imperious, overprotective, coddling, and affectionate with no effort, and these elastic mutations draw out hidden aspects of her sons that puncture the series’ otherwise predictable two-worlds-colliding dynamic. As Eileen taps into her network of California informants to learn about the war brewing between the gangs, her brusque reporting of information to Charles chastens him; as she becomes harder with the overindulged Bruce, he flails into increasingly destructive alliances. Yeoh is expectedly good in scenes where she’s one step ahead of her enemies, insulting her abductors for offering her Lipton tea instead of the good stuff from their homeland, and she brings a deadpan humor to her interactions with her sons. She proffers a flat “no” when Bruce asks, “Don’t you care about how I feel?” and punctuates her “We don’t hit family!” proclamation to her sons with smacks to the head that drive her point home.

The performances are hindered, though, by The Brothers Sun’s other inconsistencies. The series is quite a bit like co-creator Falchuk’s collaborations with Ryan Murphy in that, like Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story, it keeps mutating what it wants to be about. The tone veers from goofy comedy (Charles and Bruce hide out in John Cho’s house, where the actor’s face emblazons nearly every wall and surface) to somber drama (depictions of domestic abuse, discussions of human trafficking, subplots about familial abandonment). The series can’t decide whether to explain the world of triads to viewers versus entertain them with it, so it ends up with various disconnected details. Characters speak broadly about how gangs follow codes of honor and protection, but it often feels like the series is using the triad story line as a way to pack in striking aesthetics: ominous Chinese opera masks, clouds of blue cigarette smoke, those whirlwind brawls. The assassins targeting the triads are called the Boxers, seemingly named after the nationalist and anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion. But the show doesn’t bother expounding on that nomenclature and what it conveys about how the triads at its narrative center are viewed by normal people. The reference only ever remains a dangling thread. Jokes about how Asian people lose their minds over churros and shop for everything at Costco are more The Brothers Sun’s speed.

The closest the series comes to showcasing a guiding ideology is a familiar setup for stories about immigrant families: The country they came from is stiflingly old world, with traditions and customs that undermine individual expression, while the (nearly always Western) country where they now reside offers a wealth of personal and professional freedoms. All kinds of American TV shows from first-generation creators share this message — everything from Master of None to The Night Of to Little America to Fresh Off the Boat to One Day at a Time to Ramy — so it’s not a surprise The Brothers Sun follows the same path. What’s disappointing is how thin the series’ rationale is, how it flattens the Asian and Asian American experiences into forced murderous obedience on one side and the live-laugh-laugh potential of baking and improv on the other.

The Brothers Sun wants to grasp at larger messages about feminism and equality through Yeoh’s Eileen, who embodies the show’s central tension in a finale scene where she faces off against a female assassin. Eileen is wearing a mass-produced T-shirt with an American flag on it; the female assassin a gifted gold Rolex watch from a male superior. This iconography hints at a contrast between everyday goods as representations of personal choice and largesse luxury as a means of control. But The Brothers Sun doesn’t build on these images beyond a rote concluding statement about domestic abuse that again confuses whether this series is supposed to be about the quicksand grip of gangster life or the difficulties of a loveless marriage — or is it about self-actualization through creative fields or about brotherly love as the foundation of familial harmony? Yeoh barely breaks a sweat as she and her opponent throw each other around a cramped motel room. Yet The Brothers Sun can’t find its way out of the fight and into something more coherent.

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