Much-anticipated 'Licorice Pizza' disappoints fans with offensive 'Asian caricature'

But writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson stands by his choice, saying 'I think it would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021.'
November 26, 2021 9:11 a.m. EST

New movie Licorice Pizza had everything going for it—two young, breakout stars by way of Alana Haim (from the band HAIM), and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), who wander through the San Fernando Valley in the '70s as they maybe fall in love. Add in proven talents like Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Maya Rudolph and singer Tom Waits and writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, famous for auteur hits like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Phantom Thread, and There Will Be Blood, it was projected to be a banger.

But there's a MAJOR snag. Movie-goers on Twitter who have seen Licorice Pizza (which opens today in select theatres in the U.S. and will premiere in Canada on Christmas Day), are pretty disturbed by a recurring gag in the film that appears to mock Asian people. Many are calling out the moments as racist.

According to reports, in the movie, a white male restaurateur, played by John Michael Higgins, speaks to his Japanese wife with a fake, Asian-sounding accent. The gag later repeats in the movie, this time with a different Japanese actress playing the wife, seemingly suggesting that Asian women are interchangeable. 

This doesn't sit well with many in the audience.

David Chen, host of a podcast called Culturally Relevant, put the outrage rather succinctly in his tweet, confirming that the film is "brilliant" but "early on, a buffoonish character drops an Asian caricature. The (mostly white) audience laughs. And now you gotta think about that laughter the rest of the film."

Speaking with The New York Times, director Anderson was asked to address the cringeworthy gag when the Times journalist interviewing him, Kyle Buchanan, said the accent was "so offensive that my audience actually gasped."

Anderson had this to say: "I think it would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021. You can’t have a crystal ball, you have to be honest to that time. Not that it wouldn’t happen right now, by the way. My mother-in-law’s Japanese and my father-in-law is white, so seeing people speak English to her with a Japanese accent is something that happens all the time. I don’t think they even know they’re doing it."

Earlier this year,  anti-Asian hate crimes were on the rise in Canada due to unfounded and racist beliefs about the COVID-19 global pandemic. In the United States, a study on the representation of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in film and television roles found that audiences were asked to laugh at nearly half of those roles and characters, turning their ethnicity into punchlines.

As for Licorice Pizza, it has nonetheless been receiving high ratings from critics, with a score of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes

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