‘The Brothers Sun’ Co-Creator on Subverting Asian Male Stereotypes and Why Michelle Yeoh Has Limited Fight Scenes

Rexa Vella

‘The Brothers Sun’ Co-Creator on Subverting Asian Male Stereotypes and Why Michelle Yeoh Has Limited Fight Scenes

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains mild spoilers for “The Brothers Sun,” available to watch on Netflix now.

On May 22, 1992, three men brutally stabbed Japanese filmmaker Juzo Itami outside his Tokyo home, just days after the release of his satire “Minbo no Onna,” or “Mob Woman.”

The director of “Tampopo” and “A Taxing Woman” suffered slash wounds across the face, neck and shoulder, but ultimately survived. Police suspected the attack may have been the yakuza’s retaliation for Itami’s “Mob Woman,” which portrays Japanese gangsters as crude bullies who are outsmarted by lawyer Mahiru Inoue (played by Itami’s wife Nobuko Miyamoto).

This assault inspired writer-producer Byron Wu to develop “The Brothers Sun,” the crime family dramedy starring Michelle Yeoh as matriarch Eileen “Mama” Sun, which premiered on Netflix early this year.

“I just thought it was so funny that these gangsters were so insecure about their jobs that they beat up a comedy director,” Wu tells Variety. “That led to me to think about Asian masculinity and Asian American masculinity, and then my own relationship with that.”

Created by Wu and Brad Falchuk, “The Brothers Sun” follows Charles Sun (Justin Chien), a Taiwanese gangster who must travel to Los Angeles to protect his mother and younger brother, Bruce (Sam Song Li), after his father — the head of a Taipei triad — is shot by a mysterious assassin.

Wu spoke to Variety about the inspiration behind the two brothers, working with a predominantly Asian team and why Yeoh has limited fight sequences.

Charles is a Taipei gangster and the heir apparent to the Jade Dragons, but he truly loves to bake. Bruce, meanwhile, grew up in America and wants to pursue his own passions. What inspired you to create these two very different brothers?

I think it comes from just the feelings of being Asian American. When we talked about Bruce and Charles, we talked about the duty to self versus duty to family. Bruce is very much pursuing his own goals, his improv. And then we have Charles, who’s completely devoted to his family, does everything his dad says and is very much about protecting the family. It’s about how those two philosophies come to a head. As an Asian American, I know what that feels like. How do I satisfy both what I want to do as well as what my family wants me to do? I grew up with that.

Sam Song Li and Justin Chien in “The Brothers Sun.” MICHAEL DESMOND/NETFLIX

We wanted to subvert those typical Asian American tropes of the very serious Asian assassin and the really goofy, silly Asian guy, and we wanted to play around with them. So these two characters being together seemed like such a great fit. We just let those guys play — Sam and Justin embody that brotherly relationship so well and so naturally. 

“The Great British Baking Show” is playing on Charles’ TV during the opening fight scene. Why did you want to use that at the beginning of the series? 

It just felt like such a great way of introducing the tone of it. We’re going to be a little different than your typical action show. We’re gonna have a little bit of tongue in cheek, and we’re gonna have a little bit of comedy here. 

We had that great moment with a cake falling, and timed it to when the guy hits the table. It had to be done because Charles was baking and it feels like such an incongruent image of “Bake Off” and violence.

There are a lot of places in Los Angeles that you don’t often see on screen, such as the Korean spa and the basement full of mahjong aunties. Why did you want to introduce these aspects of the Asian community? Did you grow up in L.A.? 

Actually, I didn’t grow up in L.A. – I grew up just outside of Seattle, Washington. Part of the reason why I wanted it to be set in the San Gabriel Valley was because, when I first moved here to L.A., I had an image in my head of what L.A. was like –- Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, but I ended up moving to Hacienda Heights. I remember driving around and seeing this incredible area. It’s so Chinese American, and there’s all these little great Korean American hubs in it, too. There’s so many interesting places in L.A. that I never really saw on TV, and so when we were thinking about setting a show in L.A., I was like, “It’s gotta take place in San Gabriel Valley.”

Were there ever times that you worried something might be perpetuating an Asian stereotype? 

I think the key was having a number of Asian American people involved, from our writers’ room to being on set with people. If anybody felt like, Oh, hold on, I feel uncomfortable with this, it was something that we had to listen to. We want to play in a subversive space, so we have to play into trope while also playing around with it. It’s a fine line.

Joon Lee as TK, Sam Song Li as Bruce, Michelle Yeoh as Mama Sun and Justin Chien as Charles in “The Brothers Sun.” COURTESY OF NETFLIX

It was very important to create a space like, Hey, if you feel like something is wrong, you gotta bring it up and talk about it so that we can address it. It didn’t happen very often, but occasionally it would, and so we would just be like, let’s figure this out. Let’s make sure this feels right. That’s the whole point of the show, in the end: We want Asian American people to feel good about watching the show and feel good about being Asian American. Whether you were born in Taiwan or in the States, you should watch the show and feel good about yourself in that way. And so we needed to make sure that everyone who was working on the show felt good in that way as well.

How did the idea of John Cho’s mansion come about? 

The writer of that episode, Amy Wang, came up with it. We had it just set in some fancy mansion in Malibu, and she emailed me and Brad being like, “Hey, do you mind if I make this John Cho’s mansion?” We were like, “What does that mean? But yeah, go for it. Let’s just see where this goes.” And she just put all this stuff in there, and we loved it. Brad especially loved it. He was like, “Oh, I kind of know people like this.” 

We did have to clear it with his manager. And actually, I think in the end, we sent [Cho] that Andy Warhol-esque portrait of himself. He asked for that, so we sent it to him. 

Michelle Yeoh — the badass she is — has some amazing action scenes, but not as many as the other cast members. Why did you decide to keep Mama Sun’s fight sequences very minimal? 

I think part of it was because we didn’t want the audience to see Mama Sun. We wanted them to see, Hey, this is much more like my own mom. We needed to grow [Mama Sun] to the point where she could fight. If she was doing it from the start, I think you would’ve been like, Oh, that’s Michelle Yeoh playing a mom, as opposed to, That’s my mom being played by Michelle Yeoh. That was the line we were trying to walk. 

Michelle Yeoh as Mama Sun in “The Brothers Sun.” JAMES CLARK/NETFLIX

What was she like on set? 

She did a great job of leading by example. Michelle would carry around a huge binder. She has a binder of all the scripts and they’re beautifully annotated, there’s so many notes and they’re color coded. And I remember, one day, Sam came in with a binder after seeing Michelle’s. She’s so gracious to every single person, and it set such a tone. I’m new to the industry and this sort of thing, so having it come from her really set such a standard for everyone. I can’t thank her enough for — I mean, in a way, she’s just being herself — but I thank her for being herself.

What ideas would you like to explore if there’s another season?

Having worked on the show, and seeing all these other communities in L.A., I would love to expand out and see more Asian American communities, because I think it’s important that we are all in this together. I want to express that, and I think the show has the space for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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