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Michelle Yeoh elevates Netflix’s overstretched martial arts dramedy ‘The Brothers Sun’

The Columbian
Published: January 22, 2024, 6:06am

“The Brothers Sun,” which premiered Thursday on Netflix, is a hodgepodge of a martial arts family dramedy, elevated by the presence and performance of Michelle Yeoh. And you can quote me.

We begin in Taipei, Taiwan, in a glass-walled apartment in a modern skyscraper, where handsome, fit Charles Sun (Justin Chien) is baking a cake while “The Great British Baking Show” plays on his big-screen television. A team of masked assassins bursts in. He dispatches them with furious-fisted ease, but at the cost of his cake burning. Obviously, there is more to Charles than combining the dry and wet ingredients, but food — the modern filmmaker’s shortcut to adding dimension to genre characters — will be a motif throughout.

Enter Charles’ father, Big Sun (Johnny Kou), clearly some sort of major gangster — he’s the head of the Jade Dragons Triad — who has been drawn out of hiding. Charles, something of a grim hothead when he isn’t patiently waiting for the dough to rise, suspects rival Sleepy Chan or his son Drowsy Lee of being behind the attack, though any direction a finger points in the first 10 minutes of an eight-hour story is going to be pointing in the wrong direction. Big Sun has barely warned Charles not to jump to conclusions when a bullet pierces the window and Big Sun, who collapses, pronouncing the name of Charles’ mother.

Over in Los Angeles, Bruce Sun (Sam Song Li), who was removed from Taipei as a child, is driving for Lyft — two women throw up in his car, to indicate how that’s going — and living with his (and Charles’) mother, “Mama” Eileen (Yeoh), in the San Gabriel Valley, a hub of Chinese and Taiwanese life. (There is a good deal of community specificity.) His secret ambition, a career in improv, is indicated by his “Yes and” keychain, but he’s studying to go to medical school to please Eileen. He’s an amiable goofball living in ignorance of the family business.

And then his brother, on a mission to “protect the family” — a mantra that will be repeated with wearying regularity across the following hours, until one asks “Who says?” and “What for?” — shows up. Charles has barely let himself into his mother’s kitchen when another masked assassin arrives; he will declare, “Riddance of evil must be thorough” before becoming a severed head in a bag. Eileen enters, greets the son she hasn’t seen in years and deplores the mess and his beard. “I brought pastries,” says Charles.

Bruce will come upon his mother carving up the body for easy transport and learn something of the bigger picture.

“My whole life is a lie,” he wails.

“Not your whole life,” his mother says tenderly. Yeoh will get a good deal of humor out of this “Nothing to worry about, now study for your test attitude” throughout the show. (“It’s 8 percent of the grade” is a sort of running joke. )

Also in the mix are Bruce’s dopey, video game-playing, drug-dealing, gangster wannabe Korean friend TK (Lee Joon); family friend and protector Blood Boots (Jon Xue Zhang), who lights up the screen; his dour partner Xing (Jenny Yang), who draws light from it; Grace (Madison Hu), who improbably chats up Bruce in class; June (Alice Hewkin), a tattoo artist with an agenda; Alexis (Highdee Kwan), an ambitious deputy DA (“not a cop,” she insists, but, really, a cop), who knows Charles from the old neighborhood, when his nickname was “Little Fatty”; and an Asian water minotaur.

Though fundamentally a comedy, with a surprising, if disingenuous, pitch for nonviolent conflict resolution and a few thoughts about what constitutes manliness — Bruce is repeatedly described as being “soft” — the series can be plenty brutal and nasty when it comes to torture or gratuitous beatings or sharp things going into bodies. The fight scenes, which run at Mack Sennett speed, can be hard to track, though some at least are shot in long takes, rather than relying on editing for excitement, and so read balletically.

The skin is nearly worn through from my beating this drum, but eight hours is more television than most series — unless they have an essentially episodic structure, like “Poker Face,” or are extremely well written — can support. Material is stretched thin and/or overloaded with side plots and extraneous business.

Created by Brad Falchuck and Byron Wu, “The Brothers Sun” is basically a B picture — not a criticism by any means — whose work might be done in half the time. It doesn’t help that the central mystery of the story is made more or less obvious from the beginning with that unsubtle slogan, while characters we are meant to regard as clever go looking for enemies in the wrong places.