Misuse of science is an odd subject for a screwball thriller, unless you factor in writer-director-actor Peter Wang. A laser specialist with a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, the Chinese-born Wang changed vocations when he learned his work was serving government weapons programs. His lifelong interest in the arts led him to film. In 1982, director Wayne Wang (no relation) cast him as a cook in Chan Is Missing; his jolly performance won raves. Four years later, Peter Wang made his feature directorial debut with A Great Wall, a film he also acted in and co-wrote about a Chinese American family's return to Beijing after three decades.
His second feature, The Laserman, shares the theme of assimilation among immigrants. In the film, set in the cultural Babel of New York's Chinatown, Wang plays Lieutenant Lu, a disoriented Columbo involved in the case of scientist Arthur Weiss, perceptively acted by Marc Hayashi. Weiss, a Chinese-Jewish laser expert, loses his lab job when one of his experiments accidentally blows up his assistant. "Don't we ever learn?" says Lu. "Modern technology kills."
Weiss learns all too well when he gets involved with a group of political assassins out to exploit the lethal aspects of laser technology. Weiss's mother (Joan Copeland) – who dubs herself "a Chinese soul trapped in a Jewish body" – enlists the aid of her friend Lu, dragging the hapless lieutenant into a cultural free-for-all. A game cast, aided by richly evocative photography from Ernest Dickerson (Do the Right Thing), expertly mines the script's rude, spirited humor. Weiss's sister (Neva Small) is married to a Chinatown promoter (Tony Leung) in business with the bad guys. Weiss, divorced with a young son, has an Occidental girlfriend (Maryann Urbano) who frustrates him by trying to achieve "orgasm through meditation." The melting pot is too much for Lu; at one point, he stands in front of the mirror in the police bathroom and shouts, "I'm from Shanghai!" in a futile attempt to affirm his identity.
There's no denying that the film's mixed-ethnic jokes are sometimes as unappetizing as Mrs. Weiss's soup of matzo balls and soy sauce. But when Wang drops the shtick for satire, The Laserman is maliciously on target. It's that rare comedy with a brain and a heart. Pitting his protean wit against hypocrisy, Wang is wrestling with urgent matters of honor and principle. Next time, Wang might be even more illuminating if he wrestles more and tries less strenuously to please.