Not too long ago, I attended the wedding of my best friend from high school. Iit was my first. These days, one shouldn't be surprised by this, but I sure as hell am. I sat at the outside ceremony in my dressiest shirt, watching the guy I spent most of my time with in high school make the biggest of all commitments. We talked after the ceremony and I knew that he was sincere in his tearful vows. As much as I think marriage before you can rent a car from Hertz isn't the wisest action, I felt like he wanted to make her happy and that she wanted to make him happy. One can't say the same for the two grooms and their wife in Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland's Mail Order Wife.
First off: It's a mockumentary. Don't start thinking Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy; think Remy Belvaux and Andre Bonzel's Man Bites Dog. Adrian (Adrian Martinez) has agreed to let a three-man crew to follow him as he orders, weds, and begins to live with a Chinese Mail order bride, in exchange for a little help with the cost. After three months of sending letters, Lichi (Eugenia Yuan) comes to America and weds Adrian. We start seeing subtle sadistic behavior in Adrian as he makes her watch his snake devour a mouse and then attempts to get her tubes tied... without telling her. Things get darker and flat-out creepy after that, and she begins to see the documentary's director Andrew (Andrew Gurland). They date and eventually get married too, and things start off well, but it's all downhill from there, and boy, do I mean it.
It's apparent from the first moments Lichi enters the film that Gurland and Botko aren't here to make us laugh, at least not only make us laugh. The way that Adrian's disturbing rituals and sexual obsessions unravel in the story has the distinct feeling of an unknown person walking right behind you at 3 A.M. Martinez has a refined comic ability to make even the sleaziest and deplorable of actions and requests seem equal parts hilarious and sinister; you can't take your eyes off him. When Lichi starts to see Andrew, we see how there aren't many differences from the way Adrian was and the way Andrew is, it's only that Andrew's rituals and obsessions are a bit more acceptable. The film wants to capture the male ideas about marriage that have survived past the women's liberation movement and the equal-sex laws. Its aim is to see how all the bad ideas are still there, the patterns just got sneakier. I'm not sure if I agree full stock, but it conjures up a peculiar fascination as we see the control issues that both Adrian and Andrew share: sex, cleaning, money, food, dominance, and the living space. Andrew starts sleeping with Lichi while he is seeing Merritt, a woman who we can see demands shared control. Maybe we all just want geisha girls, as Andrew's mother proclaims at one point. There are no easy answers in the film, or in the issues it raises.
The film loses steam and focus in its last quarter, but Martinez and Gurland keep the bruising laughs coming, with help from Huck Botko's father. The film doesn't have the flow or the charisma of the classic Man Bites Dog, but there's no doubt that it has the same knack for sniffing out our dark areas without pity. It's the sort of filmmaking that's designed to create a paradox of humor and uneasiness to make us face problems that we might not want to (think Solondz and LaBute). We might all just be marrying our own expectations of control, no matter how nice and equal we think we're being. Are you sure you take this bride?