Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Catfish in Black Bean Sauce

By Marjorie Baumgarten

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000: 

D: Chi Muoi Lo; with Chi, Paul Winfield, Mary Alice, Lauren Tom, Kieu Chinh, Sanaa Lathan, Tyler Christopher. (PG-13, 111 min.)

All of us are strands of noodles in one big bowl of pho. That's a bit simplistic, but it more or less states this movie's theme and stays in keeping with the movie's culinary title. There's a nice little story here about the intermingling of cultures, but it rarely gets beyond the obvious clichés. Actor, writer, producer, and director Chi Muoi Lo may have bitten off more than he should have in his first independent film effort. The uneven dramatics show signs of needing an outside hand at the helm to give advice to this talented but stretched-thin newcomer. Chi and Tom play the Vietnamese brother and sister, Dwayne and Mai, who are adopted by a childless African-American couple (Winfield and Alice). Mai, who is married to a successful Asian-American businessman who loves karaoke, has been searching for their birth mother and finally having located her, brings her to the States, which is the genesis of the interfamilial uproar. Dwayne, who manages a black-owned bank, is engaged to marry his sweetheart, who is a black woman whom everyone loves. Dwayne's roommate dates an Asian-American transvestite, although he insists he is straight. Dwayne's adoptive parents fret over their children's potential realignment of affections, while their birth mother turns out to be something other than the maternal ideal of their dreams. It all culminates in one screamingly funny brawl, but the labored scenes required to reach that point are often slow going. Paul Winfield (Sounder, Roots: The Next Generation) and Mary Alice (To Sleep With Anger, Down in the Delta) are such fine and seasoned performers that it's a delight to see them work their magic, and as the girlfriend, Sanaa Lathan (Love & Basketball) also turns in a standout performance. The movie comes to life whenever these characters are on the screen, but the rest of the time the film feels artificial and contrived. Well-meaning and benign, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce is a carefully prepared dish that fails to linger on the palate.

2 Stars

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