Appellate Judge Michael Rankins also urges you to drink a plate of Peking ribs.
A taste of life in America.
From Wayne Wang, the director who brought you such slices of Asian and Asian-American life as Chan Is Missing, The Joy Luck Club, and The Chinese Box, comes this sometime-sweet, sometime-sour tale of love, marriage, and familial expectations in New York's Chinatown during the post-World War II, pre-Korean War era.
Facts of the Case
Cagey old Wah Gay (the late Victor Wong, who for about a dozen years in the '80s and '90s played every cagey old Asian man Hollywood screenwriters could devise) longs for grandchildren to dandle on his knee through his dotage. For those grandchildren to appear, he'll need the cooperation of his unmarried son Ben Loy (the apparently unrelated Russell Wong, Romeo Must Die, Twisted), who has recently returned home from the U.S. Army and is perhaps ready to settle down.
Wah Gay, in time-honored fashion, arranges a marriage between the daughter of his best friend Lee Gong (Lau Siu-Ming, The Legend of Drunken Master, The Medallion) and Ben Loy, capitalizing on a newly-passed federal law permitting Chinese-American servicemen to bring home wives from mainland China. Ben Loy journeys to the land of his birth, where he meets—and immediately falls in love with—his intended, the sweet and lovely Mei Oi (Cora Miao, director Wayne Wang's real-life wife). The smitten couple returns to New York to a joyous community wedding, a new career for Ben Loy managing a bustling Chinatown restaurant, and the prospect of a happy life together manufacturing grandchildren for Wah Gay and Lee Gong.
Oh, yes. Those grandchildren. Hmm.
Do you recall that scene in The Golden Child, another film featuring Victor Wong as—you guessed it—a cagey old Asian man, where Eddie Murphy's quest takes him into an apothecary shop specializing in Chinese herbal remedies? Do you remember Eddie picking up a piece of something that looked like beef jerky, only to have the shopkeeper identify the product as "yak loin—good to keep the yang up"? Put it this way: Ben Loy needs a bushel basket of that yak loin pronto, or it's going to be a long, grandchild-less dotage for Wah Gay.
Motion pictures possess the power to reveal to us worlds we've never experienced before, whether those worlds are fantastical and far away, existing only in the minds of the filmmakers, or as concrete and close by as the house next door. Wayne Wang has built a sizable portion of his career—and of his much-deserved reputation as a quality director—revealing the world of Asian-Americans to those of us who share their continent, but are ignorant of their culture. When I first saw Wang's debut film—the ultra-low-budget Chan Is Missing—some years ago, I was humbled to realize how little I really knew of the people and ways of San Francisco's Chinatown, even though I've lived in the Bay Area my entire adult life, and graduated from a university just a short Metro ride away from North America's largest Chinese community. Several of Wang's subsequent ventures, particularly Dim Sum and The Joy Luck Club, have continued my education.
Eat a Bowl of Tea shows Wang again at the peak of his ability in this regard. Before watching this film, I never knew that prior to the Second World War, immigration laws prohibited women from China from entering the United States, and male Chinese immigrants from obtaining citizenship. Chinese men coming to America seeking its fabled universal opportunity lived in predominantly male communities without their wives and daughters, forced to stay behind in the old country and be represented here only by faces in fading photographs and handwriting in letters that traversed the Pacific. (There's a funny moment early in the film where a man leaves the apartment of a prostitute, only to find in the hallway a lengthy queue of his friends and neighbors awaiting their turn. That's how desperate things got.) I also never knew that this situation remained in effect until, in gratitude for China's right hand of alliance against the Axis during WWII, Chinese men who had served in the American wartime military were at last able to enjoy the privileges of full-fledged citizens, including the right to bring to their new homeland wives who shared their ethnic, religious, and cultural heritage. Wang's film gently teaches us these facts—and many more besides—without resorting to preachiness, or subverting the humanity of its characters to the history and civics lessons.
Unfortunately, Wang's weakness as a filmmaker—as it was way back when he made Chan—is that, despite his flair in presenting his characters and their distinctive milieu, his narrative skills have a long way to go. The screenplay from which he works this time fails Wang terribly in this regard. Eat a Bowl of Tea was adapted (from a novel by Louis Chu) by screenwriter Judith Rascoe, also responsible for—one might even say guilty of—the scripts for such schlock as Havana and Endless Love (yes, I'm sorry I brought that one up—that groundswell of nausea you feel will pass momentarily). Rascoe's screenplay manages to drag this charming human story into the doldrums of melodrama at a depth from which not even Wang's deft seriocomic touches and marvelous eye for authenticity and detail can rescue it. I haven't read Chu's book, so it may well be that these flaws were inherited to some extent from the source material. But if so, that's why we call it an adapted screenplay rather than a slavish reproduction (unless, of course, we are Chris Columbus at the helm of a Harry Potter film, in which case all bets are off); the writer and director can modify and improve—even discard if necessary—the elements that don't translate well from page to screen (as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy ably demonstrates, in this critic's view).
As wonderfully evocative as Eat a Bowl of Tea is for the first half of its running time, it is to the same degree frustrating in its latter half. Characters we have come to know and like begin doing things that are nigh onto impossible to reconcile with what we have been shown about them up to this point. These actions are annoying, not just because they cause us to lose sympathy for these good people, but also because they are flat-out unbelievable. It almost seems at certain junctures that director Wang and writer Rascoe lost faith in the ability of their characters to be interesting on their own, in the natural unfolding of their lives and interactions, and thus thought it appropriate to juice things up with plot machinations so bizarre they would strain the credulity of soap opera viewers. I'll not spoil events for the reader who wants to check the film out for its many positive attributes, but suffice it to say that as the film winds along, each of our three leads—Ben Loy, Mei Oi, and Wah Gay—is called upon by the script (more than once) to behave in a manner that makes absolutely no sense, other than that they must behave this way to keep the story going. It's lazy filmmaking, and in this case, it's both unfortunate and unnecessary.
One senses that the main actors felt this credibility vacuum rather acutely, because the performances that are delightful and real early in the film become flat and monotonous once the silly business starts. Both Wongs (Russell and Victor) can be seen to better advantage elsewhere, Russell in particular—normally a vital, energetic actor, he seems awkward here. Cora Miao doesn't have much opportunity to display much range in her ineptly written role, but she at least projects the glowing innocence the part requires. The movie's best performance comes via the small but pivotal role of local gambler and man-about-Chinatown Ah Song, played with a sly, weaselly gleam by popular Hong Kong actor/director Eric Tsang. And, as is always the case in Wang's films, the background is populated by all manner of fascinating personalities who seem perfectly at home in the movie's curious setting, and not like actors inhabiting a soundstage.
If one can overlook the irritations of the script, one will find some nuggets of goodness here. Eat a Bowl of Tea is as sharply observed as any of Wang's work. His 1949 Chinatown feels authentic, 180 degrees from the cardboard construct of a commercial director seeking merely to exploit an ethnic community for the sake of dramatics. The people and their customs, manners, and circumstances resonate with the gravity of truth. Composer Mark Adler's score supports the activity onscreen perfectly, and a pair of classic songs—"How High the Moon," sung by Pat Suzuki, and a sultry "Spring in New York," performed by Lynn Ray—are utilized to stunning effect in the soundtrack at important moments. Visually, working together with cinematographer Amir Mokri (Bad Boys II, The Salton Sea), Wang opens our eyes to a world foreign to most of us, even though it may exist just down the street and around the corner. We can only bemoan the fact that he didn't give himself a better blueprint from which to build.
There's not much excitement to be had in Columbia TriStar's DVD release. The anamorphic video presentation is serviceable and completely unremarkable. It's a little dark in some scenes, but I believe this quality exists in the film itself. The transfer has been struck from a clean, well-preserved (given the age of the film) print without any obvious damage or defects. The colors appear lifelike, if muted, and no digital errors distracted my gaze. The soundtrack is similar—it does the job, doesn't do anything annoying, conveys its information accurately, and serves its purpose.
Now observe, if you will, what the keep case cover text touts as this disc's "Special Features": Digitally mastered audio and anamorphic video! (Okay, so they put both the pictures and the sound on the disc. Be still, my heart.) Remastered in High Definition! (Major thrills for the 99.9% of us who don't yet own hi-def equipment. Our day will come.) Widescreen presentation! (See "anamorphic" above.) Audio: English! (Thank goodness they didn't use that Esperanto track.) Subtitles: English and French! (Perfect for the whole gang if you decide to toss this one on after the Stanley Cup playoff game.) Bonus trailers! (For Maid in Manhattan, Wayne Wang's latest embarrassing concession to the practical need to direct a really commercial film now and then just to keep the creditors at bay, plus Zhang Yimou's The Road Home and the Vietnamese film The Vertical Ray of the Sun, neither of which will appeal to those people who might actually purchase Maid in Manhattan.) Interactive menus! (Thank you, Columbia Pictures, for sharing the joys of "Play Movie" and "Setup" with those of us whose lives would be otherwise bereft of such little pleasures.) Scene selections! (And we can even navigate within the movie itself? We're not worthy!) Now here's what you don't see: No production featurette. No director commentary. No trailer for the movie that takes up most of the disc space. Thus, no joy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You may walk away from this film disappointed by its flaws, but if you keep your attention on the screen, you'll also find cause to ponder this country's still-unsettled burden as the world's great melting pot, and reflect on the inane ways we have perpetuated our differences by finding new means of undermining those who do not occupy our seats of power or the favored place in our society.
When news of the unbridled rise of Communism and the impending Korean conflict fills the radios of Chinatown's barbershops and mah-jongg parlors, a character reacts with horror—"They're going to put us in camps, like the Japanese." We would all do well to remember that within the lifetimes of our eldest citizens: Chinese immigrants could not apply for American citizenship or bring their families across the sea to their new home; Americans of Japanese ancestry were herded like cattle into isolation ranches; Americans of African ancestry could not drink from common water fountains or send their children to common schools; two Americans of different racial heritage could not legally marry in many jurisdictions, no matter how great their love for one another; and Americans with ovaries and uteri could not vote their conscience in a polling booth.
The curtain between true freedom and the lack thereof is as thin as cellophane. Films like Eat a Bowl of Tea help remind us of that fact, and hopefully, steel our resolve to continue the path of freedom forward, and never back.
Two Wongs can't make it right. The trite machinations of its screenplay sandbag what could have been a brilliant jewel of personal drama. Still, Eat a Bowl of Tea is a beautifully constructed and lovingly filmed piece of cinema that in some ways transcends its shortcomings because its heart is pure. You'll be sorry that the script doesn't treat its main characters with greater care, but you won't regret spending a few moments of your time broadening your cultural horizons, learning a bit of history that your freshman civics textbook conveniently skipped, or watching a genuine original at work in the person of director Wayne Wang. Rent it for Chinese New Year, or a quiet evening when you're in the mood for something different, and are willing to be forgiving of its hiccups.
Guilty of crimes against the screenwriting profession, but on its considerable merits, will be released on probation. We're adjourned.
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