Lo, who plays Dwayne, uses these circumstances to attempt an original look at families and their identities, but his basic concepts are better than their execution. The effort is certainly worth noticing -- his script is an impressive debut, trying to flesh out nine closely-knit characters -- but some stale and predictable presentation drags down a strong idea.
We're first introduced to Dwayne as he plays cards with his parents (veteran actors Paul Winfield and Mary Alice) and shuns his mother's pleas to adopt their newfound blind cat. When they complain that the cat thinks he's human, it's a subtle means of explanation -- that poor cat is just the first of the cast to question his identity.
It all gets put into motion with the arrival of the mother, Thanh (actor Kieu Chinh, known as "the Meryl Streep of Vietnam"). Mai is sure of her desire to be with her birth mother, but Dwayne discards the idea. While the pair wrestle with their own reactions to this new woman in their lives, it sends the rest of the family into turmoil. Dolores, Mai's American mother, immediately resents Thanh with a twist of pride and jealousy that Mary Alice boldly brings to the movie. While Papa Harold tries to keep the peace (a role for which the tall, easygoing Paul Winfield was practically born), Dwayne reconsiders his Americanization and his impending marriage.
Lo tries to keep it all moving with a colorful mixture of joy and conflict, even easing in the occasional flashback to bring a certain pathos to the kids' development. But along the way, there's rat-a-tat comedy dialogue that's overwritten, some clunky dream sequences, and the periodic montage that screams B-movie, or even worse, B-movie satire.
The director's strength seems to be in playing it for drama. There's a healthy honesty to his story, and he extracts strong emotional performances out of his leads. But even he is a far better dramatic player than comedian. One particular Abbott and Costello-esque exchange with his roommate (Tyler Christopher) needs to be taken down a notch.
But that's the kind of basic problem revealing a beginner who's on to something good, but is still just out of the gate. After the possibility of a strong conclusion, the film's final act unfortunately heads for sitcom country. This includes a sequence that gathers all the players in one room, in a stilted attempt at wacky chaos. Neither the shots, editing, nor actors' timing was worth the trouble.
Nevertheless, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce takes a considerable dive into its characters heads without telegraphing their every feeling. And although race certainly plays a part in the film's development, this isn't a movie where race is an issue. These positives reflect the balance and smarts that Chi Moui Lo could really show off in his next film.
Pet or supper?
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Friday 9th June 2000
Distributed by: Iron Hill Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 43%
Fresh: 6 Rotten: 8
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Chi Moui Lo
Producer: Chi Moui Lo
Screenwriter: Chi Moui Lo