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[whitespace] 'Catfish in Black Bean Sauce'
Flight Pattern: Sap (Chi Muoi Lo) and his adopted parents, Harold (Paul Winfield) and Dolores (Mary Alice), wait for a family reunion with Sap's real mother.

Juggling Act

Director and star Chi Muoi Lo tries to do too much in 'Catfish in Black Bean Sauce'

By Jim Aquino

JUGGLING DUTIES as star, writer, producer and director, actor Chi Muoi Lo bites off more than he can chew with Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, a culture-clash comedy about a pair of half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese orphan siblings raised by African American parents. While Lo deserves credit for avoiding both Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?-style "I guess we're all the same under the skin" speechifying and Joy Luck Club-like earnestness during the film's more serious moments, the first-time director is hit-and-miss in the humor department. A comical hair-pulling fight between co-stars Mary Alice and Kieu Chinh is so unfunny and clunkily staged it would make the Jerry Springer Show brawl-choreographers wince.

Lo stars as Sap, an orphan from a Vietnamese refugee camp, who, with his older sister, Mai (Lauren Tom), was adopted by a black couple, Harold (Paul Winfield) and Dolores (Alice). Sap adores both parents and embraces African American culture. Going by the more black-sounding Dwayne, he sometimes peppers his conversations with hip-hop slang. When the film opens, Dwayne, who works as the manager at a black-owned bank, is mulling over whether to pop the question to his career-oriented black girlfriend, Nina (Sanaa Lathan).

Meanwhile, Mai has distanced herself from her adoptive family. Married to a Vietnamese-American infomercial host (Tzi Ma, doing a riff on infomercial pimp Tommy Vu), Mai resents Dolores and has succeeded in tracking down her and Dwayne's long-missing birth mother, Thanh (Chinh). The mom's presence upsets Harold and Dolores and throws Sap/Dwayne into an identity crisis that puts a strain on his relationship with Nina.

Dwayne's anxieties about his identity are portrayed with wit and insight. There's a great little moment in which Thanh secretly finds lifts in her son's shoes while he sleeps. Another moment, involving a black patrolman who stops Dwayne and Nina on the road, is an intriguing twist on scenes from interracial-coupling movies like Jungle Fever, in which black men get stopped by white cops.

Catfish is a showcase for Winfield, Alice, Tom and Chinh, all underrated actors who manage to keep their dignity intact even during an atrocious scene like the aforementioned slapstick family fight. The stress of juggling acting and filmmaking tasks shows in Lo's shrill performance, but I can see why Lo took the role: sadly, there are very few Asian American leading men out there, especially ones who can play neurotic, conflicted and romantic at the same time, which is what the role of Dwayne calls for, and Lo is adequate. Catfish is shaky for a first film, but because of his insight on Asian American identity, I'm looking forward to Lo's next effort. Maybe he won't be so stressed out next time.

Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (PG-13; 119 min.), directed and written by Chi Muoi Lo, photographed by Dean Lent and starring Lo, Paul Winfield, Lauren Tom and Mary Alice, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose.

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From the March 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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