Attending the University of Texas as an out-of-state student all-too many years ago, I was required to take two years of a foreign language class. Texas borders Mexico. I took French. Go figure.
In any event, I recall an African-American classmate struggling like the rest of us to correctly pronounce the peculiarly phlegmy language that is le Francais. As disconcerting as it was to hear the composite accent produced by this African-American Texan speaking French, Chi Muoi Lo’s trans-continental, trans-cultural, and trans-racial soap opera “Catfish in Black Bean Sauce” is in some ways even more disorienting.
Dwayne (Lo) and his sister Mai (Lauren Tom) are Vietnamese. Though refugee children during the last chaotic days of the Vietnam war, as we learn in one of the film’s several flashback sequences, they had it better than most, thanks to their father’s ties to the U.S. State Department. Even so, when their mother tried to arrange for their adoption by an American family to get them out of harm’s way, the siblings found themselves on the verge of being separated.
Enter Harold “Hal” Williams (Paul Winfield), a clerk at the embassy and his wife Dolores (Mary Alice). They adopted the Vietnamese children and returned to the States…where they generated quite a stir. The Williams, you see, are African-Americans.
Now-grown, the siblings have assimilated to their new country and their unusual family in different ways. Dwayne is extremely close to both his parents while his speech patterns and lifestyle — he’s the manager of a black-owned bank and engaged to Nina (Sanaa Lathan), a sweet and very attractive black woman — reflect his upbringing. Mai is a different story. While she’s genuinely fond of Hal, her relationship with Dolores is much more strained, especially since she’s spent the past few years trying to track down her “real” mother back in Vietnam. As “Catfish…” begins, she informs her parents that she’s found her and that “Ma” (Kieu Chinh) will be visiting the States for a reunion. As one might expect, this goes down about as well as the “special sauce” the guest pours on Dolores’ catfish in black bean sauce on her first night in America: tasty at first…but it leaves everyone who tried it clutching their stomachs the next day.
Had writer-director-producer-actor Lo stuck to this core cultural clash for the entire film, “Catfish…” might have been much tighter and more focused, but would also have run the risk of one-joke myopia. Apparently recognizing this danger, Lo opens the story up to several sprawling subplots — Dwayne and Nina’s struggling relationship, Dwayne’s roommate dating a transvestite but insisting he’s straight, Hal’s attempt to get someone to adopt a blind stray cat, etc. — some of which takes on almost as much importance as the dueling mothers’ fierce battle for their children’s hearts. He also indulges in goofy alternate reality fantasies; his characters imagining how some scenes will play out before they do for real.
Such diversionary tactics produce mixed results, as one might expect. Some scenes work exceedingly well, others seem entirely superfluous, the majority fall somewhere in between, their timing just off or victimized by spotty performances.
“Catfish in Black Bean Sauce” isn’t afraid to tug on the heartstrings or shamelessly manipulate the viewer. Fortunately, it’s the kind of film where the viewer probably won’t mind. Ultimately, for all its emotional trauma and fireworks, it should come as no surprise that the film ends the way most situations like this play out in real life: in accommodation. That makes “Catfish…” a grudging, hard-fought victory for multi-culturalists everywhere…and a pretty decent film to boot.