Paul W.S. Anderson’s latest “Please watch my wife murder monsters ostensibly adapted from video games” epic, Monster Hunter, premiered this weekend in China, several weeks ahead of its Christmas Day U.S. release. And then, just as quickly, Monster Hunter got itself un-premiered, as the film has now become embroiled in a widespread public outcry over a line that is, at best, an incredibly dumb, somewhat off-color joke, and at worst a reference to a long-reviled racial slur. Specifically (per Variety), Chinese audiences are upset over a moment from the movie that’s been getting passed around on social media, in which Asian American actor Jin Au-Yeung (known to rap fans as MC Jin) tells another character, “Look at my knees! What kind of knees are these? Chi-knees!”
As we said: At bare minimum, it’s just lazy, dumb writing. (In fact, we’d argue that the poor and apparently unprompted quality of the pun has probably driven at least some of the current upset, because the human mind wants to believe that you wouldn’t include a joke so lazy in a major film unless you had some ulterior motive for doing so.) But many, especially in China, are also perceiving the line as an insult, and possibly a reference to the racist “dirty knees” rhyme that’s been used to mock kids of Asian descent for time immemorial. That’s led to a pretty heavy social media backlash against the movie, including against massive Chinese entertainment company Tencent, which distributes the Monster Hunter games in China, and co-produced the film.
Trouble apparently began brewing on Friday afternoon, as Chinese audiences began passing around the moment on social media, and the outcry spread. As Variety notes, on Friday afternoon, a quarter of all movie screenings in China were of Monster Hunter; by Saturday, that number had dropped to 0.7 percent. The movie has now been pulled from pretty much all theaters in the country, and there are reports that efforts to distribute a version of the movie with the offending line removed have also been halted. Meanwhile, the backlash has grown; negative reviews have flooded the Steam page for the (largely unrelated) Monster Hunter games, and Chinese social media service Weibo has seen an uptick in posts attacking the movie for humiliating China—and firing back at the U.S. with memes referencing George Floyd, who died in May 2020 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into his neck for more than 8 minutes. (At least some of those, reportedly, were passed around by accounts linked to major political parties in the country.)
An incredibly messy and ugly situation, in other words, and a clear reminder that Hollywood’s efforts to capitalize on the massive Chinese film market are still fraught with the staggering potential for miscommunication, missed biases, and outright fuck-ups. So far, no one involved in the film’s making—including Tencent and Sony Pictures, which is set to handle its international distribution—have commented publicly about the incident, or how the outcry might end up affecting the film’s wider plans for release.