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Catfish in Black Bean Sauce

Starring Paul Winfield, Mary Alice, Chi Muoi Lo, Lauren Tom, Kieu Chinh, Sanaa Lathan, Tyler Christopher, Tzi Ma, George Wallace, Wing Chen.
Written and Directed by Chi Muoi Lo

IN SHORT: A first time attempt that wasn't ready to go. [Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and sexual content. 119 minutes.]

Once upon a time Harold and Delores Williams (Paul Winfield and Mary Alice)wanted to have children, and found that they could not. Harold, an Army officer working to help relocate refugees from Vietnam, stepped in when a ten year old girl and her five year old brother were within days of being permanently separated. Mai (Lauren Tom) was never happy with the arrangement, and would never acknowledge either adult with anything other than their given names. Sap, renamed Dwayne (Chi Muoi Lo), embraced the pair as mom and dad and never gave another thought to the parents he felt had abandoned him at the US Embassy in Saigon.

In the present day, with kidlets all grown up, Dwayne is ready to propose to his girlfriend Nina (Sanaa Lathan). His carefully laid plans are constantly screwed up by roommate Michael (Tyler Christopher) and "girlfriend" Samantha (Wing Chen) - more on that later. Or by a local cop. Or by his folks. In short, it isn't a great day for Dwayne. Toping it off is Mai's declaration that she has found their birth mother and is bring her, Thanh (Kieu Chinh) to the States to live. Mom, when she gets there, wants to reassert control over her kids, especially Sap whose relationship with Nina is racially unacceptable. Rounding off the cast is Mai's husband Vinh (Tzi Ma), who has made a fortune pitching self-help seminars on teevee.

With a small change in economic and racial classes (the Williams' are African-American and certainly not rich) Chi Muoi Lo's Catfish in Black Bean Sauce tries too hard to come off as a warm and fuzzy comedy with heart and soul. What it looks like on screen is a teevee sitcom in the mode of Diff'rent Strokes. Indeed, Lo's acting style is a dead-on imitation of Gary Coleman -- all this script needs is a "Whatcha talkin' about?" -- and the parody would be complete. Problem is, this isn't supposed to be a parody.

Lo wears four hats on this one: producer, writer, director and star. It's one, if not two hats too many. At the core of a family drama, which is what this story is, you must have well defined characters for the actors to build upon. The younger actors are still building their chops, but I have watched Paul Winfield and Mary Alice for years, and these good actors have little to work with. The script, and Lo's direction swerves from tear jerker to sitcom; the emotional ranges expressed by the actors don't move comfortably between the two; there is at least one huge gap in the continuity of one character and a subplot involving Samantha's sexual identity, and Michael's as well, comes almost out of thin air (Dwayne finds a driver's license with a picture of a middle aged "Sam Woo". Even in drag, if indeed that's what it is, Samantha isn't close to middle age). The script was greatly in need of at least one more pass. Lo's attempts to mix fantasy sequences and flashback sequences into the story line work only part of the time.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, he would have paid...


For the arthouse circuit. Film maker wannabees should check it out and pay attention to the errors. Making a first time indie feature isn't easy. Neither is trying to do everything yourself, which is the case for many. Catfish is the opposite end from the also opening this week Smiling Fish and Goat On Fire.

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