Why Jet Li’s character in Romeo Must Die is the worst depiction of an Asian man in popular culture.
For a long time, it was Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A surprising number of people aren’t familiar with this role, so I’m going to go ahead and post this picture.
I’ve never read Breakfast. But I’m lead to believe the part was entirely Rooney and the director’s interpretation, down to both the outrageous physical crap Rooney has going on with his face and all that “Gorightry” claptrap. It’s a depiction of such abject awfulness that Paramount, presumably from complete mortification, filmed a 17-minute documentary of Asian actors hacking it to bits to accompany the film’s 50th anniversary.
Rooney goes a step further by adding the kind of skeezy salaciousness you’d expect from a “Yellow Peril” poster. He is ALL up in Hepburn’s business, and we’re meant to understand, even without the buck-toothed, slanty-eyed shenanigans, that there is no way in hell Hepburn’s lithe, Caucasian beauty would ever be attracted to this Oriental mess of a man. We are meant to understand that Mr. Yunioshi is going to enjoy an entirely sexless existence because he is Asian, and not just a wacky caricature, full stop.
Jet Li’s Han Sing is a million times worse.
Romeo Must Die
Even less people have seen Romeo Must Die, so here’s the synopsis from IMDB:
An avenging cop seeks out his brother’s killer and falls for the daughter of a businessman who is involved in a money-deal with his father.
In 2000, this movie was a bit of a thing. Aaliyah’s star was so ascendant she was pulling all matter — R&B, fashion, vampire novels — toward her centre. Jet Li, already an absolute legend in Hong Kong, had just come off a star-making turn in Lethal Weapon 4.
Actually, can we talk about Lethal Weapon 4? Because it might be the second worst depiction of an Asian man in popular culture. After spending the entire movie establishing that Jet Li is a crazy bad ass who kills people while counting out beads on a string, the filmmakers have him meet his end at the hands of so-old-it’s-a-running-joke Danny Glover, and Mel Gibson, whose signature line in the movie, “nice pyjamas”, is essentially him saying to Li, “Fuck your culture”. As the bad guy, Li has to be defeated, and as the good guys, Glover and Gibson have to do it. But could they not do it in a reasonably plausible way, like shooting him in the face? Or dropping him off a building? Did we really need to see the spectacle of Glover/Gibson fist-fighting Li to death? It’s like watching a kid with a straw trying to take on the Eiffel Tower.
ANYWAY. We have an R&B star making her big-screen debut and a martial arts legend about to explode in Hollywood, which, while not necessarily the ingredients for a smouldering inferno of sensual pleasure, should have produced at least a minor spark of SOMETHING. What we get instead is almost two hours of the most passion-free romance ever committed to film.
How passion-free? Consider that they cut the ONE kissing scene in the movie because it happens right after Li’s father commits suicide. Seriously. Nevermind that the director and writers could have put the scene literally at any other point in the movie. That’s in the hands of god now. But why, when the characters are supposedly so in love with each other they are willing to destroy both their families, were they only going to kiss ONCE?
Part of the problem is casting. At 37, Li was clearly too old for a 21-year-old Aaliyah, a difference only compounded by the decision to make him about as cool as a dad at a high school dance.
Jonathan Beller of PopMatters believes this is actually part of the film’s socio-political milieu:
Still, Hollywood prevails uber alles and Jet Li, the male Asian lead, cannot kiss Aaliyah, the female African American lead in the grand finale. This small detail bears out the general point: money, inflected by whiteness, structures the film’s narrative as well as its aspirations to produce masculinity.
I mean, props to Beller for attempting to do this, but I’m going to come down 16 years from the future and say — no. No, no, and no. Respectfully, that is not why they don’t kiss. The reason Jet Li doesn’t come within a country mile of kissing Aaliyah is because no one in Hollywood thought anyone outside of Hollywood wanted to see that, and they were probably right. Of the many things Asian men are allowed to be — clever, industrious, loyal, even beautiful — genuinely sexy isn’t one of them. Which is some grade-A level bullshit.
The only time Asian men are allowed to be sexy in a Hollywood movie is when they are clearly also assholes, as Li’s Romeo Must Die co-star Russell Wong demonstrated in The Joy Luck Club. In what should have been a career-defining performance, Wong eats a watermelon like no watermelon has ever been eaten before.
I mean, goddamn. That watermelon got ate. But before we can get too cozy with his gastronomic flirtation, he’s cheating on his women and she’s drowning their baby and boy howdy, what a jerk. That sexy Asian man totally fooled us!
Given this situation, it might be easy to think we should forgive Li his sexless, joyless turn as a martial arts marionette. That is a completely understandable way to think. It is also very wrong. Because in the same year Li was flipping his snapback and saying “homies”, a very different sort of movie was coming out in Hong Kong with a very different, drop-dead sexy leading man.
Full disclosure — In the Mood for Love is my favourite movie of all time. I’d watch Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung read from a phonebook for ten straight hours. So take this all with several grains of salt.
That said, Leung’s performance is to Li’s what Wagyu beef is to the tongue of an old boot at the bottom of the ocean. Leung doesn’t just smoulder in ITMFL: he’s got a clip full of blue-tips and a handful of fire. He’s a brooding missile of a tortured lover wrapped in cigarette smoke and perfect grey suits. Oh, you cut a kiss from your movie? Cute. We cut this bonfire of a dance scene. Swag.
Tony and Maggie don’t exchange a single on-screen kiss (without ruining the movie for you, this is entirely consistent with the movie’s central premise). But in one restaurant scene they have more sexual energy than a million Jet Lis at a million typewriters composing a million works of Jackie Chan slash fiction.
My point is, there are a lot of ways to be sexy. The Chinaman kissing isn’t the issue, here. The issue is telling me there’s a world-ending romance happening but, wait, one of the people involved is Asian so, you know, everybody chill. The issue is building a movie around the premise that two characters are in deep, passionate love but express that passion through rolled eyes and deeply awkward dance scenes.
I don’t believe Li would kill and die for Aaliyah. I don’t even believe he’d cross the street to buy her a sandwich.
Jet Li — you are guilty of the worst depiction of an Asian male in popular culture. (So far.)