The Brothers Sun tries to do something unbelievable. It tries to convince us that Michelle Yeoh is just an old Asian aunty who loves her bargain pasta strainers and networking over mahjong. But then it ends up turning the meat cleavers on their sharp ends and becomes a paean to old Chinese aunties—their indomitable resourcefulness and ultimate badassery.
Created by frequent Ryan Murphy collaborator Brad Falchuk and newcomer Byron Wu, the latest action offering from Netflix, The Brothers Sun is a sleek and swanky black comedy that acts as a dance between the worlds of crime and culinary chaos. It has family drama, cops, crime, and a generous sprinkling of Asian culture, all framed with a sense of humour that is coded into its very essence.
At its core, The Brothers Sun revolves around the Sun family, one of the notorious Taiwanese Triads (organised crime syndicates), the Jade Dragons, who have been ruling the roost with an iron fist. When the family patriarch, Big Sun (Johnny Kou), is attacked by a mysterious faction in his son’s home, Charles (Justin Chien) must go to Los Angeles to protect his mother, Eileen (Michelle Yeoh), and younger brother, Bruce (Sam Song Li).
Charles’s life-altering visit disrupts the seemingly average existence Bruce had been living with Eileen. The unsuspecting Bruce not only discovers his family’s ties to the Chinese underworld but also has to choose between rising to the occasion or clinging to the life Eileen has built for them in America.
If you tune in expecting the legendary Michelle Yeoh in action, you might be disappointed. Eileen is more brains than brawns. The Everything Everywhere All at Once star is just as delightful to watch. However, the series is not short on action, and it excels in this department. From the first fight sequence that unfolds in the backdrop of the idyllic Great British Bake Off playing away on Charles’ TV to graphic dismemberments, the action is choreographed with excellence.
The production designs and costumes are ritzy, paying homage to old-school martial arts films. From the intense theme music to the fonts used for the credits, the aesthetic styles of Chinese action cinema are brought alive with a lot of meticulousness and adoration. This visual tribute extends to small nods to Asian culture, from the earnestness of opening shoes before entering homes to the omnipresence of food, which ranges from the comfort of mapo tofu to the mouth-watering goodness of hotpot with the hottest red chilli peppers. If the food makes your stomach growl, it can just as easily churn and turn with the blood and gore. There are also subtle nods to the cultural differences between Taiwan, mainland China, and, of course, LA.
The show’s soundtrack is coded with as much old-school coolness as the rest of the visual aesthetics, featuring funky tunes like Sonia Barcelona’s ‘Heart Station’ to Mandarin versions of popular songs like ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest.’ The latter soars in one of the most spectacularly choreographed moments of mayhem in episode six, ‘Country Boy,’ when an enraged Charles turns into a stone-cold killing machine—as he was trained to be, with several long shots captured with drones.
There’s a fun little homage to Jurassic Park, to Jackie Chan in the way Sam Song Li does his body comedy with Bruce, to Bruce Lee in the way Justin Chien stands so taut and dignified all the time, to Ekin Cheng with his iconic hairstyle showing up on one of the Triad gangsters. We have a hyper-feminine drug lord with a grungy twin sister. There are knife fights, hand-to-hand combat, martial arts, and clever subterfuge.
But The Brothers Sun is more than its geeky tributes to Asian action cinema and culture. It is an apology to the eldest sons in Asian families, who are brutalised and stripped of their individuality and softness in a bid to turn them into honour-bound protectors of their families. It is an ode to Asian moms, who carry the mental burden of keeping their families together while being expected to linger in the shadows.
Justin Chien’s portrayal of Charles Sun, a hardened criminal with a penchant for baking (the sweetest things that he never eats himself) and an undeniable love for churros, is a standout in The Brothers Sun. The chemistry between Chien, Song Li, and Yeoh makes this melodramatic action series worth a watch in its own right.
But, of course, The Brothers Sun isn’t without its faults. Some parts feel overstretched and underexplained. Sometimes, it falters with its tonal shifts. The dialogues aren’t always the sharpest and there is an over-reliance on the ‘odd couples’ trope. Nonetheless, it creates a distinctive viewing experience. So, for the love of crispy, cinnamony churros, watch The Brothers Sun on Netflix, but don’t watch it hungry.