CATFISH IN BLACK BEAN SAUCE

PG-13
Reviews

Raised by a black couple, Harold and Dolores Williams (Paul Winfield, Mary Alice), Vietnamese Dwayne (Chi Muoi Lo) goes through an identity crisis when his real mother, Thanh (Kieu Chinh), suddenly arrives. Dwayne, who relates more to African-Americans than Asians, suddenly finds his entire world turned upside-down. His two moms, Dolores and Thanh, battle. His black girlfriend Nina (Sanaa Lathan) seems to be withholding affection. His roommate (Tyler Christopher) has a Chinese girlfriend who just might be a man. His sister Mai (Lauren Tom), who located Thanh, is ever more indifferent to her adoptive parents.

Lo, who also wrote, produced and directed Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, initially creates a delightfully diverse world in which no one is really as they seem to appear. Race is the theme here, but Lo approaches it deftly, making the farcical most of the incalculable diversity of these urban times. There are funny scenes involving Dwayne's job as manager at an African-American bank, dealing with obstreperous customers or a black cop too interested in his personal life, and Harold and Dolores have a bickering but completely relaxed relationship that is charming. Lo's acting style, peppered with street, as well as Vietnamese, slang rhythms, has a good frenetic edge to it, which carries the material with comic smoothness. The film rather falls apart in its final third, when Lo goes too strenuously for a bang-up emotional climax, lingering overlong on a catfight between Dolores and Thanh. The transsexual bit is skimmed over, and feels as if it were put there for mere shock effect. The characters of both Mai and Nina are a bit one-note and have many unsympathetic, unfeeling aspects to them that aren't as easily smoothed away as Lo's script would have it. There are sporadic, whimsical ideas, like a blind cat who suddenly talks, and highly variable fantasy scenes, which aren't developed fully enough. An insistently treacly music score is of no help.

Mary Alice is a comic joy, doing a slow burn as she watches Thanh dump fish sauce all over her carefully prepared welcoming dinner. Winfield, with his easygoing androgyny, has a lovely chemistry with her. Chinh does her best with a difficult role that is mostly pure, negative-based reaction. Christopher is appealingly equivocal, vehemently denying any homosexuality on his part when Dwayne tactlessly questions him in one of the film's funnier scenes.

--David Noh