[Screen It]


(2000) (Chi Muoi Lo, Paul Winfield) (PG-13)

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Drama: A middle-aged African-American couple and their adoptive, adult Vietnamese son must cope with his sister bringing their biological mother into all of their lives.
Harold (PAUL WINFIELD) and Dolores Williams (MARY ALICE) are a middle-aged, African-American couple who, twenty-some years ago, adopted two orphaned Vietnamese kids. Despite their tumultuous early years, Mai (LAUREN TOM) and Dwayne (CHI MUOI LO) are now generally well-adjusted young adults, with Mai being married to Vinh (TZI MA) and Dwayne hoping to propose to his nurse girlfriend, Nina (SANAA LATHAN).

The happily family scene is disrupted, however, when Mai announces that she's located their biological mother, Thanh (KIEU CHINH), and is bringing her over to the States. While Mai is happy to have her real mother back in her life, Dolores is hurt by the woman's presence as is Dwayne who must put up with this stranger living with him and his roommate, Michael (TYLER CHRISTOPHER), who's dating Samantha (WING CHEN), a male transvestite.

With Thanh's presence putting a strain on the many relationships within the Williams clan, Dwayne must figure out his true cultural identity, whether he can accept his biological mother into his life, and how all of that affects his engagement to Nina.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
There's no denying that adoption is a wonderful, satisfying and fulfilling experience for all involved as children in need find loving homes and single mothers or couples who can't or otherwise don't want to raise a child are freed of the responsibility of doing so. Yet, occasionally there are some related elements that make the adoptive process and/or its repercussions somewhat traumatic.

Those include the mother-to-be suddenly realizing she's going to give up the baby that's been growing inside her, the child eventually discovering the "truth" and then thinking that they weren't wanted, and the reactions of both the biological and adoptive parent(s) to the adopted child setting out and then finding that biological parent, all of which could possibly reopen old wounds and/or a whole new can of worms.

Due to all of that inherent drama and the related tough character decisions, such adoptive matters often prove to be good fodder for fictitious and nonfictional stories - as well as letters to Dear Abby and Ann Landers - although the former is usually of the made for TV/movie of the week variety. Occasionally, however, they make it to the big screen which is the case with "Catfish in "Black Bean Sauce," the writing and directorial debut of Chi Muoi Lo, who also appears in a prominent role in the film.

Instead of focusing on the actual adoption per se - although bits and pieces of it are shown via flashback -- Lo opts to examine what happens when an adult adoptee decides to find their biological parents as well as the ramifications of that on everyone involved.

The added twist here is that the adopted kids are Vietnamese refugees who were adopted by an African-American couple (thus the title that, while initially perceived as a cutesy moniker like "Fried Green Tomatoes," actually stems from one particular scene and the overall symbolic nature of the two involved cultures). That said, while the film has the right intentions and a decent story at its core, Lo's apparent inexperience around the cinematic kitchen results in a picture that doesn't come off as fully done.

Its half-baked rawness stems from several issues. For one, Lo doesn't seem to have mind up his mind about what kind of story he wants to tell or the most concise way of doing so. Much of the time the film comes off as a mildly amusing, but otherwise straight drama. At others, however, Lo injects some odd, "Ally McBeal" type fantasy material (such as Dwayne imaging a motorcycle cop riding off with his girlfriend or the family cat talking to him - in English and with visibly moving lips) that simply doesn't gel with what occurs immediately before or after it.

What works in one film or TV show doesn't necessarily mean it will do so in others, and that's certainly the case here. The result is that such moments disrupt what little pacing and momentum the film possessed at the time. I say that because many of Lo's scenes aren't executed very well, with some starting and stopping too abruptly, including the opening scene that might have some viewers thinking the projectionist started the film midstream or that the editors got a little too carried away with the old razorblade.

In addition, some material seems superfluous - such as the whole bit involving the roommate dating a male transvestite - certain elements and character motivation and behavior come off as rather stilted and/or contrived - particularly concerning Dwayne and his suddenly changing attitudes toward those around him-and the choice and playing of sappy and/or whimsical music is a bit too obvious in its use.

To make matters worse, while the acting is generally okay, but not necessarily great, across the board, at times it's so wooden and/or generally bad that - coupled with the film's other problems - you might just think that you're watching the efforts of the local community playhouse on amateur night.

While such moments thankfully don't occur throughout the production, and performances from the likes of Paul Winfield ("Mars Attacks," "Sounder"), Sanaa Lathan ("Love and Basketball," "Blade") and Kieu Chinh ("City of Angels," "The Joy Luck Club") are okay as long as they're not asked to do anything too stupid, when they are bad it's the thespian equivalent of fingernails screeching down the proverbial chalkboard.

Overall, the film probably would have been better had Lo removed one of the three hats he wears throughout it. Since that isn't the case, however, the result is a film that may possess the right intentions and ingredients for a decent picture, but the wrong culinary touch and utensils, not to mention lack of proper time in the cinematic oven, to make it tasty. Although it could have come off as both delightful and delectable, "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce" isn't as interesting or appetizing as it might sound. As such, the film rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 15, 2000 / Posted October 6, 2000

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