Koch Vision // 1993 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // April 15th, 2005
"Sometimes you still seem, well, like you're having trouble expressing your thoughts. You feel like that?" -- Claire
Writer-director Tony Chan's 1993 winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award tells the story of an illegal immigrant from China named Robert (Jeffrey Lau, A Chinese Odyssey). Working as a waiter in a small restaurant in New York called the Szechuan Inn, Robert sends most of his earnings to his parents in China. The central obsession of his life is obtaining a green card so he'll have the freedom to visit his family without giving up the potential financial benefits of life in America. Robert's only hope of acquiring legal immigrant status is to marry an American citizen. After striking out with a Chinese-American girl with whom he has little in common culturally, he's ambivalent about meeting an acquaintance of one of his friends, a shy American computer programmer named Claire. The duo's relationship moves haltingly forward, hampered by barriers of language and culture, as well as Robert's guilt over his ulterior motive. Meanwhile, life goes on at the Szechuan Inn, where conflicts arise between workers from different parts of China; the staff struggles to deal with the bullish idiosyncrasies of their American patrons; and one of the waiters is caught skimming money from the staff's shared tips in order to pay his rapidly mounting gambling debts. Matters are complicated for Robert when immigration agents turn their attention to the restaurant and its staff just as he decides to come clean with Claire, whatever the consequences.
Combination Platter has the slice-of-life structure that's almost de rigueur in indie features. Plot threads peter out rather than climax, and that's mostly okay because the movie is as much about the theme of frustrated communication as it is Robert's adventures in gaining legal immigrant status. Despite the Sundance award, the screenplay is loaded with clunkers: A smarmy, mulleted American guy tries to entertain his Chinese-American girlfriend with the old "Help! I'm being held captive in a fortune cookie factory!" gag at the end of their meal at the Szechuan; nearly anything that comes out of the mouths of a couple knuckleheaded sports fans who are always chatting up the gambling waiter, Sam; or an absurdly heavy-handed scene in which an irate customer in an ironed-on "This is America -- Now Speak English!" T-shirt berates a waiter for not understanding why she's dissatisfied with her meal. Chan tries to walk the fine line between witty, stylized dialogue and closely-observed naturalism, but frequently fails. Where he succeeds is the complexity with which he examines barriers in culture and communication, and the discomfort people feel in being cut out of conversations, unable to connect with the people around them in the most basic way.
While Chan's handling of American characters is mostly broad caricature, the precision with which he explores the frustrated communication between Chinese characters at various stages of assimilation into Western culture is fascinating. This is a milieu in which the wife of one of the restaurant's cooks is upset because their son is marrying a girl who speaks Cantonese rather than Mandarin. The Chinese immigrants use the derogatory term "ABC" for Westernized, English-speaking American-born Chinese. They're attracted to America's offer of greater financial freedom, but find Americans and their brash culture abhorrent. Is it any wonder Robert has trouble relating to Chinese-American women, let alone a Caucasian who's only knowledge of Chinese culture is Moo Goo Gai Pan? Perhaps the best piece of extended dialogue in the entire film is a conversation between Robert and a Chinese-American bartender, the owner's niece. The bartender, who speaks no Chinese, describes her embarrassment at being snickered at when she orders a Coke at a local Dim Sum place, her frustration at not being able to understand what the staff is saying, and the discomfort of knowing she's the subject of their conversation. The movie explores this sense of isolation from multiple angles, relating Robert's struggles in the larger American culture and with Claire to various characters' hardships within the Chinese-American subculture.
Unfortunately, Chan's inability to write round characters and consistently believable dialogue hampers the full blossoming of his theme. It's a great idea that fails to fully grab the viewer's interest because we care about so few of the characters. The lone exception, luckily, is Jeffrey Lau, who delivers a quiet performance that sneaks up on you. He's appropriately awkward throughout the film, unsure of his English and uncomfortable around any character who is at all Western. The quality of Lau's acting snaps into sharp relief when immigration agents raid the Szechuan Inn near the end of the film. For such a subdued picture, the scene had me on the edge of my seat. I cared whether Robert got caught. He's such a meek, sympathetic character, downtrodden in the manner of Chaplin's Little Tramp, that it's impossible not to like him, not to root for him. Absent Lau, Combination Platter would be a disaster of mediocre, amateur acting.
This DVD release of Combination Platter from Koch Lorber is, unfortunately, far from impressive. The image is washed out and slightly soft. I suspect this is an NTSC conversion of a PAL transfer because there's ample ghosting around quick movement. Though I've indicated in the specifications section to the right that the film is presented in a full screen transfer, that isn't entirely correct. The image is cropped ever so slightly at the top and bottom, producing an aspect ratio of around 1.40:1, I'd guess. Compositional framing looks fine, though, and I assume Chan shot the low-budget picture with the intent it be exhibited at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It's difficult to image it would look good even cropped to 1.66:1. The only other complaint I have about the video presentation is that subtitles of Chinese dialogue are burned into the image. There is enough Chinese dialogue to warrant menu-accessible optional subs.
Surprisingly, audio is presented in both a 5.1 surround mix and the original stereo. The surround track is hollow and artificial. Dialogue sounds oddly detached from the actors, though it is in sync. The original stereo track is natural and far less distracting.
With the exception of some trailers for a half-dozen or so other Koch Lorber DVD releases, there are no extras.
Combination Platter is a decent film if one excuses the subpar acting and technical flaws endemic in low-budget, independently-produced features. Aside from Tony Chan's detailed understanding of culture clashes among Chinese-Americans, and a sympathetic performance by Jeffrey Lau, the film doesn't have much to offer. Still, those strengths are probably enough to warrant a viewing if you're a fan of independent arthouse cinema. Because of the DVD's low technical quality, though, I recommend a rental rather than a purchase.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated