Mostly Unserious Reality Index for Netflix’s The Brothers Sun
Netflix’s The Brothers Sun is excellently written, acted and produced. More than just funny and entertaining, the show insightfully depicts trans-Pacific intergenerational relationships, Taiwanese American culture, and SoCal Asian American life. Though most of us have no experience in the criminal underworld and we obviously know the series is meant as entertainment, people have also been commenting on the series’ believability and accuracy. Hey that was so spot on! Wait, nah, it isn’t like that!
I couldn’t turn that part of my brain off, either. Because I spent significant parts of my childhood in both the US and Taiwan and once maybe witnessed something gang related, I believe I am vaguely qualified to share my mostly unserious reality assessment of the series and even provide some season 2 suggestions. (Warning: some spoilers)
As always, Michelle Yeoh is a goddess playing Eileen Sun. However, I had to suspend some disbelief whenever she spoke Mandarin because she lacks the fluency of someone who grew up around the language or speaks it often as an adult. -10 especially when Blood Boots refers to her as a “Taiwanese mother” and -2 when she speaks Mandarin at her sister’s grave but +5 when she speaks Cantonese to her mother, hinting there could be more backstory.
Charles, meanwhile, speaks fluent American English and Taiwanese Mandarin with just a tiny hint of an American accent and mostly swears in Taiwanese, +9. This is quite believable for a well-traveled scion of privilege in Taipei who also grew up with deep local connections. Credit to the writers and actor Justin Chien for really nailing this. Childhood flashback Charles, though, is definitely not a Mandarin speaker, -3.
+10 Blood Boots speaks English with a British accent, Mandarin with a Beijing accent, and swears in Mandarin. During my teenage years in Taipei, one of my closest friends spoke English with an Australian accent and Mandarin with a Beijing accent due to his upbringing. Thus, according to science it’s entirely conceivable Blood Boots picked up these accents during formative years outside of Taiwan before joining the Jade Dragons. We deserve an origin story here! Alas…
+12 Big Sun, played masterfully by the award-winning actor Johnny Kou (寇世勳), steals the show in every one of his scenes. His Mandarin and English sound exactly as you would expect from a high-level waishengren mobster his age.
+9 for Bruce’s poor Mandarin becoming a plot point and ongoing joke.
For season two:
Ideally, Eileen gets a backstory of being born in Malaysia to a Cantonese-speaking crime family before marrying Big Sun for a political alliance and giving birth to Charles and Bruce. Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express bent over backwards to give us a backstory that utilized actor Takeshi Kaneshiro’s fluent Mandarin and Japanese while explaining his poor Cantonese. Similarly, Everything Everywhere All At Once gave us a rich, mostly believable linguistic landscape for Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan’s family. Eileen Sun deserves the same!
+10 Charles lives in a fancy apartment in the upscale Xinyi district of Taipei. But also -5 when Big Sun arrives unexpectedly because immediate and extended family would inhabit several units in the same building.
+10 Eileen arrives at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport terminal 2, the actual terminal for arrivals from North America. However, I highly doubt she’d see Taipei 101 from her plane or ride a cab through what looks like the Taipei main station area. For that matter, Eileen’s mom would live in Da-An or Yangmingshan instead of Xinyi. Also, Taiwanese airlines arrive from the West Coast in the morning and Eileen obviously would not fly a US carrier. -5
+10 The humble, ranch-style Southern California homes with outdated kitchens are appropriate for immigrants trying to lay low. But “the Rolodex only had value if no one could find me” and yet Eileen moved to THE epicenter of Asian American organized crime and largest diaspora Taiwanese community in the world. She couldn’t have tried, um, Ohio? -20
+20 Number 1 Seafood Restaurant in Alhambra. But -5 because it doesn’t have any Shen Yun posters.
John Cho’s house and car collection look way out of his price range but then they make a joke out of it, so even. Also he has karaoke so +5.
+10. Alexis’s apartment actually looks affordable for a non-corrupt civil servant in an expensive market.
+5 The mah-jong parlor and Boxer “community center” portray the spirit of historic Chinatown tongs and their role in immigrant communities.
+10 Fictional Cal State San Gabriel looks believable as a heavily Asian American university campus in Southern California. But Bruce’s best friend is Korean American, his love interest is a girl named Grace, and he never once gets invited to a campus Asian American worship night or Bible study? -10. Speaking of religion, Eileen and Bruce hang out with the Taiwanese aunties yet none of them wear navy blue qipao or mention volunteering for Tzu Chi Buddhist charities. -10 more.
+10 The Rolodex includes Frank Ma from Changhua and Mango Lin from Douliu in Yunlin County, both in south-central Taiwan. These are widely-known Hoklo Taiwanese gang power bases, as opposed to waishengren and Hakka gang territory in the north. Throughout Taiwan, it’s semi-jokingly remarked to never mistreat women from Yunlin because they probably know someone in organized crime. But -3 because Yunlin is not particularly known for its mangoes; that’s Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Pintung. The county line between Yunlin and Changhua is, however, famous for its delicious gourmet black bean soy sauce.
-10 Eileen walks to all these locations during her mission of delivering gifts to strengthen alliances but they’re more than an hour away from Taipei via High Speed Rail.
For season two:
Eileen and Charles travel to Yunlin and Changhua via train, helicopter, or chauffeured car to strengthen alliances while seeking a foothold in the gourmet soy sauce industry. Charles wins goodwill by creating a delicious hit pastry that highlights local black bean flavors. Bruce’s new love interest, Esther, invites him to Bible study while Eileen’s Tzu Chi friends organize a volunteering event.
Food and Drink: +3
Charles loves The Great British Bake Off and decorates cakes in his fancy Taipei apartment because Western baking and Western ovens are totally fancy-people things in Taiwan +10. But after arriving in LA, Charles picks up pastries at a bakery in Monterey Park for Eileen and Bruce instead of bringing a box of pineapple cakes or other treats directly from Taiwan?! -20.
-5. Eileen brings a bag of duty-free tea leaf back to the States. A tea snob like Eileen would absolutely have a relationship with a tea purveyor in Dadaocheng, Taipei. Sometimes you can find products from my favorite Taipei tea purveyor at Taoyuan Airport duty-free so ok fine I’ll give her some benefit of the doubt for such a brief trip, +3.
Speaking of tea, +10 for Eileen trashing the Boxers for serving “tea not even worth serving to a dog on the street” but –5 because in the same breath IRL Eileen would’ve bemoaned how “kids these days” like boba and drink so much of it. She’d then go into an extended rant about the dangers of excess sugar consumption.
-10 for Eileen bringing American donuts to her mom but +5 for asking right away if they’re too sweet. My LA friends confirm that most Taiwanese tastes would find Donut Friend too rich and sweet.
-5 no way Eileen uses a Western chef’s knife. Charles might, but Eileen would use a Chinese cleaver.
+5 Eileen’s fridge contains doubanjiang, Lee Kum Kee, and XO sauce. Bruce’s fridge would probably contain gochujang as well but we know Eileen cooks all his food. +5 for Bruce’s soy milk.
+10 for Alexis’s 99 Ranch bag. I can’t decide how to score Alexis using a metal utensil on a non-stick pan, not serving rice with tomato scrambled egg, and not actually stir-frying the tomatoes. Perhaps +5 because she’s so focused on backstabbing and career-climbing that she lacks the warmth of close relationships and good leach-free food? Also there’s no way her kitchen has enough flour for all that Charles baked unless she hoarded it during 2020 lockdowns but Charles wouldn’t use leftover flour that old so -5.
Eileen’s Longchamp bag is moderately capacious but is still far too small for that gargantuan severed head. -5. Sheer brilliance, though, when she strengthens alliances in Taiwan by delivering Costco health supplements and single malt Scotch.+20. Also +5 when she greets Charles by criticizing his beard and asking why he isn’t married yet.
+5 when Charles references Young and Dangerous because Asian gangster-wannabes in the late 90s and early 2000s all adored that movie. +5 for his obsessive sunscreening that he defends by mentioning a suspicious mole. But -2 for the clumsy “rule of guanxi” stuff.
-5 That was a cool fight scene at the driving range and I get that the Korean mob is really into golf but really none of them has a gun? Also, the Korean spa was a brilliant place for the square meeting but I highly doubt even the mob could kick out every single ajumma and ajussi.
+5 for Xiao Pang Pang bakery using those pink Cambodian donut boxes but is Charles really leaving the entire place empty while he returns to Taiwan? Did he at least find a new tenant or rent it out to a ghost kitchen? -3.
More for season 2:
- Alexis realizes she lacks decent food and loyal relationships in her life but it’s too late because she has cancer from using metal utensils on nonstick pans. Charles makes an Infernal Affairs reference about their new loving but tragic relationship.
- Charles reconnects with his good friend in Taipei, a Mandopop megastar who mumbles a lot, and appears in his music video. Bruce recognizes the song at karaoke but can’t read or understand any of the lyrics.
- Coincidentally, Bruce discovers his long lost twin brother who was raised by Eileen’s father in Malaysia and Singapore and now also happens to be a Mandopop megastar based in Taipei.
- Eileen and Charles tangle with the Instant Noodle Chu family before eventually aligning with Vietnamese gangs in rural Taiwan and Southern California for complete world domination by controlling the global sriracha sauce supply chain.
- Eileen isn’t interested in their reservation at Raw Taipei but instead flexes her true all-time Dragon Head status by walking straight into the original DinTaiFung and being seated without taking a number. She finds their tea acceptable.
Final Realism Verdict: +82
The Brothers Sun is more real than the unauthorized DingTaiFung (with a “g”) in Toronto but needs to tie up some loose ends in season 2 to be worthy of the Taipei original’s 18 folds.
Calvin Chen is a Chicago-born Taiwanese American pastor based in Seattle, Washington.