Michelle Yeoh is a legend. Most of us ‘90s kids, who weren’t that exposed to Hong Kong cinema, became familiar with her expertise in martial arts and scene-stealing acting in Tomorrow Never Dies, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Sunshine. Then we came around to her stellar work in Yes, Madam!, Royal Warriors, Supercop 2, Tai Chi Master, and The Stunt Woman. She received accolades for her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Just when it seemed like she wouldn’t be able to top her Oscar-winning performance, I think she has proved everyone wrong with what can only be described as a career-defining performance in The Brothers Sun. And, spoiler alert, she is just one out of many terrific aspects of the Netflix show!
Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk’s The Brothers Sun, with the episodes being directed by Kevin Tancharoen and Viet Nguyen, opens in Taipei with Charles Sun being attacked by a bunch of assassins, thereby ruining his cake-making session. Xing and Blood Boots show up to clean up the mess, but Charles’ father and a prominent member of the Triads, Big Sun, also arrive at the crime scene because he is concerned for his son. That ends up being a big mistake because someone shoots and maims Big Sun, thereby sending Charles into a frenzy. However, Yuan (Big Sun’s advisor) reminds Charles that he must keep his promise and protect his mother, Eileen Sun, and brother, Bruce Sun. So, he reaches Los Angeles, only to find that they are living a very different, crime-free life. That changes, though, as the people who almost killed Big Sun try to kill Charles, thereby prompting Eileen to show her true colors, which forces Bruce to come to terms with his family’s origins.
Despite the complex system in which the Triads work and the decades of history between each of the characters that we see on the screen, and some that we don’t even see on the screen, The Brothers Sun has a pretty straightforward story. The writers dedicate a chunk of the show’s episodes to the mystery around the gang that is trying to kill the Suns, and they stretch it out in a fashion that allows Charlie, Eileen, and Bruce to grow as a unit as well as individuals. We get to see them make some choices that are selfish and some that are for the greater good. And we get to see how they treat their friends, enemies, and foes, and the treatment they get in return. The interactions and situations that they find themselves in are either humorous, tense, or a mixture of both. But it’s never, ever serious for the sake of being serious. The tonal shifts always feel organic, and before you even know it, you’re deeply invested in the inner workings of this world of eccentric gangsters and the lives of the Sun family. In addition to all that, it’s impressive how the writers ensure that the themes of tradition, patriarchy, matriarchy, brotherhood, respect, honor, regressiveness, and progressiveness are uniquely Asian. It feels like they don’t care about the four-quadrant nonsense; they just want everyone from the Asian continent to go, “Yes, that’s probably what my mother will say as well in that situation.”
The action in The Brothers Sun is exquisite. I am aware of the fact that shows like Gangs of London, Warrior, Wu Assassins, Cobra Kai, Kung Fu, and Into the Badlands have featured a lot of amazing action, and they’ve definitely set the standard for quality martial arts-heavy set pieces in TV shows. But the work done by Tancharoen, Nguyen, cinematographers C. Kim Miles and Andrew Mitchell, editors Ryan Chan, Mark Strand, and Evita Yuepu Zhou, and the entire action direction and stunt team really hit the sweet action-comedy spot that has been developed by Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung, Stephen Chow, Jackie Chan, and, of course, Michelle Yeoh. As in, it’s visceral, brutal, inventive, hilarious, and exciting all at the same time. The Jurassic Park birthday brawl is excellent. The bathroom or sauna battle should be given the “best fight sequence in a bathroom or sauna” crown. The golf range takedown by Charlie makes smart use of a drone-mounted camera. The score and the song choices make everything feel so much more entertaining. And those are just the bigger set pieces. Every small burst of violence and every time the show subverts our expectations to avoid a fight, or pushes it into the background, are worthy of a round of applause. That said, please know that the show isn’t nonstop action. It’s a part of a narrative that’s filled with drama, comedy, and romance. So, when the showrunners want you to slow down and admire the costume design (all the costumes are amazing), the production design, the food (the show will definitely have you salivating for some Taiwanese cuisine and churros), and the overall atmosphere, be prepared to go with the flow.
As mentioned before, Michelle Yeoh’s turn as Eileen Sun is a career-defining performance. The episodic format truly allows her to paint a vivid picture of her character and flex every tool in her skillset. And somehow, it seems like she has so much more to offer! Justin Chien almost steals the show. I say “almost” because Sam Song Li gives him some tough competition for the limelight. Both of their characters are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both of them are equally good at highlighting every little detail about their respective characters. And when they are on the screen together, it’s magical. TK is like the Kenny (from South Park) of The Brothers Sun because he is almost killed so many times and he always manages to come back. Highdee Kuan has a great screen presence. Alice Hewkin is ferocious most of the time, which makes her softer moments hit really hard. Jenny Yang’s stoicism is so good. Blood Boots is my favorite out of the supporting cast, and yes, he deserved a better outcome. Madison Hu is amazing. Even though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, Johnny Kou makes quite the impression. All the Mahjong aunties and the members of the Triad are fantastic. It’s nice to see Yoshi Sudarso, Andy Le, and Brian Le partaking in some rip-roaring action sequences. Additionally, a huge shoutout goes out to all the masked and maskless goons who take the worst kind of beatings to make the main and supporting cast look cool. Without them, an action-comedy series of this scale and scope can’t be made.
If it isn’t clear already, yes, The Brothers Sun is brilliant. If you are a fan of action, comedy, drama, and Michelle Yeoh, you should definitely watch it all the way to the mid-credits sequence in the eighth episode. It has my whole-hearted and unabashed seal of approval. That said, I have a few criticisms that aren’t necessarily related to the quality of the show. Firstly, the release and the marketing. Dropping it in the first week of January without any sort of hype feels risky. There’s an unhealthy chance that it’s going to fade into oblivion, because that’s what usually happens to January releases, and that’ll be an unfortunate result for such a well-made show. And secondly, the release schedule doesn’t complement the episodes. I know that Netflix has a binge-watching model, but if the episodes of the show streaming on the platform are meaty and over an hour long, it makes sense to release them on a weekly basis. It just gives the audience the chance to think about what they’ve seen instead of rushing through it and getting tired. Hence, I’ll recommend folks watch the show at a pace that allows them to enjoy it. The creators have clearly put a lot of effort into crafting this stunning series. So, give them the attention that they deserve.