The tale of an unsuspecting, regular person discovering a family member has a secret life and is part of a very dangerous secret world has been done plenty of times before. The Brothers Sun, the new Netflix show created by Brad Falchuk and Byron Wu, avoids retreading old ground by ensuring that its action-comedy always supports the heartfelt family drama that keeps this story together.
Bruce (Sam Song Li) is your typical Chinese immigrant kid living in Los Angeles. His mother, Eileen (Michelle Yeoh), is overprotective and works odd jobs to make ends meet and ensure her son can get a good education. While his mother wants Bruce to become a doctor, all he can think about is becoming an improv comedian. If that wasn't stressful enough, Bruce now has to deal with his estranged older brother Charles (Justin Chien), whom he hasn't seen in over a decade, coming to visit following a tragic shooting against their father. Their separation and upbringing on opposite ends of the world deeply ruptured the brothers' relationship, and a big part of the show is devoted to them getting to know each other again, and learning the difference between duty to oneself versus duty to family.
It also turns out that Bruce's family runs a notorious and wealthy Taiwanese triad. While Bruce struggled to be the nice son his mother always wanted, Charles became one of the most dangerous killers in Taiwan. The reason Bruce lives in the U.S. is part of a deal Eileen made to protect the family business, and the reason Charles is suddenly in L.A. is that a group of skilled assassins are after all of them.
Most of the comedy in The Brothers Sun comes from both brothers engaging in fish-out-of-water antics. Sam Song Li sells Bruce's constant freak-outs at discovering just how violent his family is without making it feel tired. Who wouldn't overreact at the sight of their mom casually chopping up a dead body to dispose of? Meanwhile, Charles has a reckoning of his own, as he starts to open up to American culture and the absolute delight that are churros. There’s a tongue-in-cheek approach to even the fight scenes, including a stellar sequence involving assassins dressed as dinosaurs. The show cheekily references both the usual pillars of martial arts cinema (Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan get big nods) and cult movies like Gymkata, which gets an episode-long homage.
The action is by turns winking and quite brutal, with plenty of bone-crushing, skull-bashing, teeth-punching fights to satisfy those looking to start the year with a brawl. Directors Kevin Tancharoen and Viet Nguyen split the season between them, which gives The Brothers Sun a more consistent look than other Netflix shows. The stunning choreography comes courtesy of stunt teams that also worked on the first John Wick and Everything Everywhere All at Once. There’s a lot of variety to the fight scenes, from a long shot fight on a golf course to a chaotic brawl in a sauna, which maintains the show’s and prevents repetitiveness.
What makes The Brothers Sun a compelling and entertaining show is its cultural specificity. There's exquisite attention to detail in the choice of food, fashion, slang, and the importance of aunties that sells this as a specific Taiwanese-American story and gives it a sense of authenticity that only comes from having an all-Asian writers' room and a crew familiar with these cultures. It is within that cultural specificity that the show becomes universal, as its portrayal of the two brothers' struggle with the weight of family expectations is something that translates to every language.
At its heart, The Brothers Sun is about Bruce and Charles, and how they reckon with their parents separating them as kids and raising them in polar opposite ways. It is in the more dramatic elements of The Brothers Sun that Justin Chien shines. He is the standout performer, as he not only kicks all kinds of ass during the fight scenes, but excels at selling Charles' inner turmoil. While Bruce grew up blissfully oblivious to what happened to his brother and father, Charles was painfully aware that his mother left him to be trained as a soldier while his younger brother lived a privileged and sheltered life in California. Charles’ arc of reckoning with his mother’s abandonment and his feelings at seeing his brother get the kind of freedom he can't even imagine makes for many a gut-punch moment.
Though the finale teases a continuation of the story, it functions just as well as a standalone single-season story. The bittersweet ending marries Eastern and Western sensibilities, telling a universal tale through a very culturally specific point of view. The Brothers Sun has a thrilling blend of action and comedy, as well as some memorable characters, but its poignant exploration of family and duty is what makes it special.
The Brothers Sun is now streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Rafael Motamayor is a freelance writer and critic based in Norway.