Catfish in Black Bean Sauce starts with a promising premise for either a farce or a melodrama: Two Vietnamese-American siblings, adopted and raised by a black couple, find their lives turned upside down when their birth mother arrives in the States 20-some years later. Unfortunately, writer/producer/director/star Chi Muoi Lo doesn't have the filmmaking finesse to bring off either tone with great success.
Lo establishes a complicated back story efficiently in the first 20 minutes: In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, 6-year-old Sap (Kevin Lo) and his adolescent sister Mai (Amy Tran) get separated from their parents. They are brought to the United States; their mom and dad are put into reeducation camps, since Dad worked at the American embassy. Stateside, they are considered unadoptable: Few families want to take on two children at once, particularly when one is as old as Mai. When Mai refuses to be separated from her brother, Harold Williams (Paul Winfield), who is working at the relocation center, decides to take them in. He and his wife, Dolores (Mary Alice), become the duo's parents.
Leap ahead more than 20 years: Sap (now played by the director) has been renamed Dwayne (after Harold's father). He is culturally black, for all intents and purposes--he works at a local African-American-owned bank and is trying to pop the question to his girlfriend, the lovely, long-legged Nina (Sanaa Lathan, of Love and Basketball).
Catfish in Black Bean Sauce
Not surprisingly, given her age, Mai (Lauren Tom) has a greater connection to her Asian roots. Despite her love for Dolores and (more strongly) Harold, she has long searched for her birth mother, Thanh (Kieu Chinh). With the help of her husband, Vinh (Tzi Ma)--apparently some sort of vaguely sleazy get-rich-quick infomercial entrepreneur à la Tom Vu--she has finally found Thanh and arranges to bring her to the United States.
Thanh's arrival is hardly an idyllic reunion. The emotional dynamic is a mess: Mai craves closeness with Thanh, but Thanh is interested only in Dwayne. Dwayne, still feeling abandoned after all this time, has nothing but resentment for Thanh. Dolores and Thanh instantly regard each other as rivals for their kids' affections. Only Harold seems to have a reasonable and mature attitude toward all these issues.
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One would think this is more than enough emotional confusion for one film. But Lo tosses in a couple more obfuscating complications that serve only to bloat this modest project's running time to more than an hour and 50 minutes. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, Thanh's presence causes problems in Dwayne's relationship with Nina; and Dwayne's white roommate (Tyler Christopher) is romancing a beautiful Asian (Wing Chen), whose true gender is implausibly in doubt.
Sometimes a film's texture is enriched by the addition of so many subplots. But, in the case of Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, the result is havoc. Characters' feelings switch from love to hate without warning or motivation. The comedy scenes are cartoonishly broad (and not very well choreographed), and the sappy score underlines every emotional scene, just in case we weren't already sure how to feel. At other points, Lo commits the classic sin of having characters behave in ways that make no sense, just to set up a scene that he really thinks will be funny, e.g., a moment when Dwayne suddenly, inexplicably starts pretending that he and his roommates are gay lovers. It comes completely out of nowhere. Even more sadly, the scene it sets up isn't very amusing.
The performers sometimes redeem the film. Winfield just breezes through, managing to maintain his dignity and project his considerable charm as the only thoroughly likable character on screen. Mary Alice, Lauren Tom, and Kieu Chinh do as well as possible in less thankful roles. But the director himself is the main character, and Lo the filmmaker does not serve Lo the actor particularly well.
Catfish in Black Bean Sauce has won several major prizes at minor festivals: Best Screenplay at Newport Beach; Grand Jury Award and Audience Prize at the Florida Film Festival; and Grand Prize and Audience Award at Worldfest-Houston. It's easy to see why it might please some audiences: It's sweet and well intentioned, with occasional amusing moments. But for others, that will hardly seem adequate compensation for its many flaws.