“I think we’re ready to see films about family, relationships, mother-and-child not just from a Caucasian perspective,” Chi Muoi Lo said during a recent Dallas interview. He and Iron Hill Pictures certainly hope he’s right, since “Catfish in Black Bean Sauce,” dealing with two Vietnamese refugees adopted by an African-American couple, is his very personal project (he wrote, produced and directed the film, as well as playing one of its major roles), and Iron Hill has taken on the considerable task of giving it a fairly wide distribution.
The title itself may prove a drawback to general acceptance, but Lo hopes that it will engender interest by being different. It’s a Chinese delicacy popular in Vietnam as well, and though some have suggested that its exotic blend of flavors serves as a good symbol for the racial connections among the characters in the picture, Lo explained that the choice was more a matter of serendipity. “I wore a couple of hats on the film and one of them happens to be as producer,” he said. “I went to a restaurant and one of the items on the menu was catfish in black bean sauce. As a joke I went to my assistant and said I had found the perfect title–‘Catfish in Black Bean Sauce.’ And she said, ‘Yes, yes!'” Ever the pragmatist, Lo took her reaction as a good sign. “This is one way to get people to talk about the movie,” he noted. “There’s no brilliance behind it [the title], just good marketing technique.”
For Lo, who’s appeared as an actor in such features as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Indecent Proposal” and “The Relic” as well as such TV programs as “NYPD Blue,” “Law and Order,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Northern Exposure” and “Night Court,” creating “Catfish” was a labor of love, but a difficult one. The script was based on his own experiences, but not slavishly so. He and his family escaped Vietnam in the last days of Saigon and settled in West Philadelphia, where he grew up among blacks, though with his birth parents. So while the interracial milieu was taken from his life, the entire adoption scenario was an invention. But many details–like the figure of a Vietnamese man who mistranslates the conversation between the immigrant children and their case worker, and that of an English teacher whose pronunciation is appalling–are based on Lo’s own recollections. “You can’t help but take some of your life and put it in there,” he remarked.
After completing the script, it took him a year and a half to raise the money to make the picture, and it required him to go “outside the system,” beyond the major and mini-major studios. “The feedback I got [from the studios] was ‘No, no, no,'” Lo recalled. “Finally one executive grabbed me by the hand and said,’Too many minorities. Too many old people. And the only Caucasian character you’ve got–does he have to be gay?” But Lo persisted, found financing, and assembled his cast–“Once you’ve got Paul Winfield, it’s a lot easier,” he laughed–and went with a 22-day shooting schedule, with one pickup day, “as long as a TV movie would take. I compensated for the short schooting schedule with [two weeks] of rehearsals.”
Originally Lo hadn’t intended to cast himself–“I actually wanted to just direct”–but when it became difficult to find someone who could master the necessary accent (and clear that doubling up would save money), he agreed to do it. “It’s tough,” he said of simultaneously acting and directing. “I enjoyed the days I didn’t have to act. I probably wouldn’t do it again, unless I had a large budget.”
Once the film was completed, Lo had to search for a distributor. He followed the usual path of taking the picture out on the festival circuit, which resulted in “a few offers. Iron Hill was the only one I could live with,” because the company promised a fairly wide release.
After the experience of making “Catfish In Black Bean Sauce,” Lo is quick to warn aspiring filmmakers of the obstacles they’ll face. “If you’re an independent filmmaker, don’t do it!” he said. “When you have to do it, when you don’t have a choice, when you cannot move on to another project unless you do it, then do it.” He added: “Get a publicist before one frame is shot. The whole festival circuit is like Hollywood–who do you know? Create a buzz before your movie’s even made!”
But one gets the idea that despite all the problems, Lo is glad he put in all the effort required. After all, he’s that on another script and has been approached to produce three smaller pictures, while saying, “I love to act for other people.” And looking back on his life in America, he added: “What a great place to be, where you can celebrate other people’s culture and character!” And that’s precisely what his “Catfish” does.