Netflix’s new series The Brothers Sun asks viewers to suspend our disbelief a lot. Whether it’s a group of assassins dressed in those dinosaur costumes that were popular on Vine, a triad-leading killing machine with a penchant for The Great British Baking Show, or the absurd idea that anyone actually likes improvised comedy, we’re expected to just go along for the ride. But perhaps the most ridiculous thing The Brothers Sun wants us to believe is that this show is a worthwhile use of Michelle Yeoh’s talents.
After the attempted assassination of his father, Charles Sun (Justin Chien), now de facto head of the Jade Dragon Triad, transplants to Los Angeles to protect his mother (Yeoh) and younger brother Bruce (Sam Song Li). While Charles is a competent and cool leader, Bruce is a hapless, improv-loving nerd who suddenly finds himself thrust into the criminal underworld. What follows is an odd couple-style tonal mess, in which the sheltered Bruce comes to terms with the fact that his mother is married to the mob.
The dialogue sounds like the actors filmed their lines separately, and the characters all speak in the same manner—everyone prefixes words with “super” constantly—as they lurch from tired quips to whiplash-inducing self-seriousness in a way that feels inhuman. Everything is held together with a bedrock of fat jokes. But the most egregious sin this show commits is that, in a series ostensibly built for her talents, and fresh off an overdue Oscar win, Michelle Yeoh is relegated to delivering some of the worst dialogue you’ll ever hear in what’s already Netflix’s most middling show in some time.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being middling. Lots of shows are mid-but-watchable; even The Brothers Sun is mid-but-watchable. But you know who isn’t middling? Michelle Yeoh. And that’s made all the clearer by how easily she rises to the top of this often lazy series, despite having so little to do for the majority of its run time except trying not to be mortified by her son’s passion for improv (which even Yeoh cannot make believable).
Yeoh’s talent is well evidenced in later episodes, whether it’s Eileen’s tearful return to Taiwan, a visit to the grave of a sister she didn’t know had died in which Yeoh transforms into a portrait grief, or the menacing monologue she delivers to her unconscious husband, “Big Sun” (Johnny Kou), as she cuts ties with him. Were this show simply about a Triad kingpin’s wife striking out on her own with Yeoh in the lead, it could have been something special.
Instead, the series seems more interested in trying to subvert our expectations of Yeoh—or, at least, the expectations of those who hadn’t followed her career before Everything Everywhere All at Once. In a career defined by momentum—a crackling energy that pervades every performance—Yeoh’s other most iconic roles may be the action films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Supercop. But Yeoh’s catalog of performances is replete with characters that ooze heart and charisma beneath all that energy. From the fun Tomorrow Never Dies, to the harrowing Far North, and the shaky but still remarkable The Lady.
In being so overt and self-congratulatory in its pretense of subversion, The Brothers Sun almost feels like an insult when we all know Michelle Yeoh is one of the best actresses working today. When the series plays off a bait-and-switch, in which she goes from confronting an assassin to scaring him off by alerting the neighbors or puts her in a room with the bad guys to “negotiate,” as a twist, it doesn’t feel surprising. It just feels like a wasted opportunity to show off the star of the show’s talents.
That’s a good summation of the series as a whole. The Brothers Sun feels like it’s been built for the Netflix algorithm, conjured from everything that’s been popular with audiences in the last few years: east-Asian familial drama, action-comedy, dynamically shot fight scenes, dark thrillers—even the far-too-recent mainstream recognition of Michelle Yeoh’s star power.
The result of this is that Yeoh is here, and she’s doing everything she can with what she’s given. On paper, she makes for the perfect star of a show that divides its time between high octane action and familial complexities—not least as that’s literally the broad strokes of Everything Everywhere All at Once. Where that worked around Yeoh in a character-driven story, however, The Brothers Sun forces Yeoh to work around the series. Making her a beacon for the profound issues within the show even while she manages to shine through as its singular bright spot.
That there are any moments to celebrate in Yeoh’s performance is solely down to Yeoh and her acting, rather than the script she’s been given. That’s the real shame here: Michelle Yeoh deserves better than fat jokes and Chinese mom jokes. She deserves better than a limp script that relegates her to the background with nothing to do. If nothing else, she deserves a big fat check for The Brothers Sun—even if the show would immediately make fun of how fat said check is.