"Lethal Weapon 4" hits nerve with Asian stereotypes
It’s a good thing the movie opened after President Clinton’s trip to China: Who knows what kind of diplomatic breakdowns might have occurred had Lethal Weapon 4 been screened for the Chinese?
Though it’s not exactly a Charlie Chan movie, the array of decidedly un-PC Asian jokes made in Weapon has rankled many observers. The film wallows in racial stereotypes (Chinese people work in restaurants and can recite the day’s specials); cavalierly tosses around ethnic gibes (Q: “I heard you were up to your ass in Chinese last night.” A: “They’re tall enough to come up to the navel, but most of them come up to our knees”); and even resorts to mocking accents (among his many gems, Mel Gibson makes “flied lice” jokes).
“It looks like it’s going to be a big hit, and a lot of Asians are seeing it because of [Hong Kong star] Jet Li,” says Jeff Yang, publisher of the Asian-American journal A. Magazine, who reports hearing negative reactions from people around the country. “And when they come out of that theater, they’re going to be appalled.” Guy Aoki, cofounder of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, says that even beyond the obvious missteps with the ethnic humor, the movie brings up a more basic problem: “Asian Americans are still waiting to be seen as the good guys.”
For his part, director Richard Donner seems genuinely surprised by the criticism. “I didn’t think there was anything offensive to the Asian world,” says Donner. “If they were offended, I’m sorry, I apologize.” Donner notes that none of the Asian-American actors on the set pointed out any problems to him and that a “flied lice” joke originally came from Chinese-American actor Kim Chan, who plays Uncle Benny in the film. “I can’t worry about everybody, and yet you certainly don’t want to hurt anybody,” says Donner. “It’s entertainment.”
—With additional reporting by Josh Wolk