Combination Platter


Combination Platter Review

Robert (Jeffrey Lau) works at the Szechuan Inn in the burgeoning Chinatown of Flushing, Queens. Robert is from Hong Kong and, like most of his co-workers, he doesn't have his green card. He speaks Cantonese and a little English, whereas the kitchen staff speaks mostly Mandarin and the American-born Chinese hostess and white busboy only English. The hostess is picking up a few words in Cantonese, such as "mild," for the sake of the cooks. The busboy wants to know how to say "fuck you." Robert's only friend is another Hong Kong immigrant who has a plan to get Robert his green card; when the Chinese-American woman he introduces Robert to asks for fifty thousand dollars, rather than the twenty-five thousand agreed upon, to provide him with citizenship by marrying him, Robert is introduced instead to a white American woman named Claire (Colleen O'Brien). Robert wonders why this American woman would want to date him. Maybe she's just lonely, his friend explains. Robert and Claire spend time together, but Robert's limited English prevents any real relationship from developing and his conscience nags at him. Meanwhile Immigration is sweeping Chinese restaurants in the area, hauling undocumented workers away in handcuffs. How long before Robert gets hauled away, too?

Combination Platter, which took the screenwriting award at Sundance in 1993 and subsequently played a limited theatrical run to positive reviews, is in many ways the ideal independent feature. Its outside-the-mainstream perspective -- that of an undocumented, specifically Asian immigrant -- is one that a studio would never touch; or, if it did, the perspective would be broadened so that, like Dirty Pretty Things, the film encompassed the experiences of outsiders of many different types. Combination Platter remains specific to the plight of Chinese immigrants, and it recasts a familiar American landscape in a new light. While all of us are familiar with restaurants like the Szechuan Inn, bare apartments like the one Robert retires to nightly, the bodegas and delis that dot urban street corners, Robert's necessarily low-profile existence is more or less confined to a circuit of locations like these, and the viewer is introduced to an America parallel to, but more restricted than, the one we know. In Robert's small world, Americans are the outsiders, customers mostly, although all of them are to be treated with suspicion since any of them -- and especially the customers -- might prove to be Immigration agents. Meanwhile Robert's Chinese acquaintances are sometimes nearly as foreign to him as the Americans: there are the Mandarin-speakers, those more assimilated than he, and Chinese such as the hostess who were born and raised in America.

It's a strange world, and director Tony Chan, whose sole feature this is, presents it with candor and honesty rather than the kind of self-conscious quirkiness that mars many small independent films. Time and again Chan makes narrative choices that are more true-to-life than magical; Robert's relationship with Claire, for instance, concludes in a way that is probable, given the facts of Robert's situation, but atypical in terms of screen romance. A subplot about a fellow server at the Szechuan Inn with a gambling problem is treated in similarly non-Hollywood terms. The problems that arise with the film -- the cinematography, for example, is imaginative in the kitchen scenes but hopelessly cramped on the floor of the restaurant -- are those common to low-budget features like Combination Platter. What recommends it is its candor and uniqueness. It's a small, but very enjoyable film.

Combination Platter is newly available, sans extras, on DVD.

Combination Platter

Facts and Figures

Run time: 84 mins

In Theaters: Friday 1st January 1993

Reviews 3.5 / 5

IMDB: 6.3 / 10

Cast & Crew


Producer: ,