||The title of Chi Muoi Lo's debut film might sound like a Cajun dish, but it's actually a Vietnamese delicacy; the suggestion of radically different flavors suits the picture, a dramedy which combines farcical elements with heavy doses of sentiment and bursts of melodrama. But while the cinematic outcome isn't at all indigestible, it doesn't fully realize the promise of its finer ingredients. In other words, this is an extremely uneven little movie, even if one is inclined to overlook some flaws in view of its modest budget and the obvious devotion with which it's been made.
The premise of the picture, which is vaguely based on Lo's own experiences as an immigrant to the U.S., is that after being raised by a loving African-American couple (Harold and Dolores Williams, played beautifully by Paul Winfield and Mary Alice), two Vietnamese-American siblings--Dwayne (Lo), who's just gotten engaged to Nina (Sanaa Lathan), and Mai (Lauren Thom), who's married to a comical salesman named Vinh (Tzi Ma)--are confronted by the appearance of their birth mother Thanh (Kieu Chinh), whom Mai has been searching after for years. Thanh turns out to be a shrewd and calculating woman whose desire to shape her son's future to her liking threatens his planned marriage and antagonizes Dolores, as well undermining Mai's blissful homelife with Vinh who, despite his goofy appearance, is actually a very sympathetic fellow.
It's impossible not to admire Lo's aim to address serious issues here: the crossing of ethnic lines, the tension between Americanization and Vietnamese traditionalism, and the inevitable strain between natural and adoptive parents are all worthy themes, and the fact that Lo wants to deal with them from a humorous perspective is brave, too. Unhappily, in endeavoring to handle so much, and to do a lot of the work by himself (he is, after all, producer-director-writer-star), the young filmmaker has bitten off more than he can comfortably chew. His interweaving of the various plot elements is clumsy and the shift from drama to comedy often sloppy (a scene between Dolores and Thanh which turns into a brawl is the worst offender in this regard). Some of the transitions involve obvious, hamfisted plot twists (the sudden illness of one character is the most notable example). Nightmarish "imaginary" sequences are resorted to far too frequently, and a scene involving a talking cat is simply dumb. Even worse, there are sub-plots that aren't just extraneous but leave a viewer wondering what point Lo might want them to have at all: all the scenes dealing with Dwayne's roommate Michael (Tyler Christopher), who's going with a transvestite named Samantha (Wing Chen) while insisting he's not gay, are astonishingly poorly written and badly directed. (You wonder why a bank manager like Dwayne would still have a roommate anyway, and his extravagant consternation about Michael's situation, leading to some lame misunderstandings and cheap slapstick, is simply inexplicable except as either a crude farcical contrivance or a fumbled suggestion of homoeroticism.)
In spite of these major flaws, however, some aspects of the film are so fine that they make the screen shine. Winfield and Alice, for instance, exhibit such genuine warmth and expert timing that their scenes together are a joy. Lathan, who was so impressive in the underappreciated "Love and Basketball," is really affecting as Dwayne's fiercely independent but still loving fiance. Chinh is formidable as the siblings' long-long mother (even though the toothless denouement makes her change attitudes in an entirely arbitrary way), and though Thom and Ma are hobbled by the fact that their characters are sadly underwritten, their likable performances help to conceal that weakness in the script. George Wallace makes a brief but amusing appearance as an irate bank customer. The weakest cast member, perhaps not unexpectedly, is Lo himself, who whines too much and overplays his big moments as Dwayne. It was surely a mistake for him to direct himself; a stronger hand could have shaped his work to far better effect.
A different helmer might also have insisted on rewrites, which could have rid the piece of its unnecessary elements, intercut the various plot pieces more adeptly (as it is now, characters disappear for long stretches, only to burst abruptly back into the action), and effected smoother transitions (in its present form the picture merely lurches along, with some sequences fading out into dead air). It's easy to understand why Lo, for whom "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce" was clearly a labor of love, should have taken on so many tasks in an attempt to guard his material. But the sad fact is that had he been a bit less protective, the final dish might have proven a more succulent repast.