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Eat a Bowl of Tea
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Region 1 NTSC
Columbia Tri-Star Entertainment
16 x 9 Anamorphic Widescreen
English/Cantonese Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0

Year: 1989
Director: Wayne Wang
Producer: John Chan, Patricia Chong, Lindsey Law, Tom Sternberg
Cast: Cora Miao, Russell Wong, Victor Wong, Lau Siu-Ming, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Philip Chan Yan-Kin, Law Lan, Lydia Shum Din-Ha (cameo)
The Skinny: Wayne Wang's winning film adaptation of Louis Chu's landmark novel about Chinese Americans living in New York during the 1940s.

Review by Calvin McMillin:

From Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang comes Eat a Bowl of Tea, a biting satire on the mores of 1940s-era Chinatown bachelor society in New York City. Adapted from the novel by Louis Chu, the film centers on the arranged marriage of Wang Ben Loy (Russell Wong) and Mei Oi (Cora Miao), and weaves an intriguing tale of love, betrayal, and hard-fought reconciliation.

Although the relationship between the two is central to the story, their plotting fathers are just as crucial to the film's narrative. Ben Loy's pop, Wang Wah Gay (Victor Wong) has left behind a wife in China, as has Mei Oi's dad Lee Gong (Lau Siu-Ming). Seeking to find a wife for his ne'er do well son, Wah Gay persuades Lee Gong to agree to a marriage between their two children. Since Ben Loy had been enjoying the company of prostitutes, he's a little reluctant to get hitched, but eventually caves in to his father's pressure, returning to China to meet his new wife and catch up with his neglected mother.

Luckily, Ben Loy and Mei Oi hit it off immediately, and all seems to be going well - that is, until they arrive in New York. It turns out that Wah Gay isn't through applying the fatherly pressure, this time laying a guilt trip on Ben Loy to start a family. One problem: upon his return to Chinatown, Ben Loy experiences some severe "equipment failure." And since Viagra won't be around for decades, it doesn't look like Ben Loy's impotence is going to get cured anytime soon, much to the frustration of his new bride.

Embarrassed by his inability to perform and infuriated by his father's constant haranguing, Ben Loy starts taking out his frustrations on Mei Oi, sometimes snapping at her, other times throwing himself into his work. The result is that Mei Oi is left home all by herself, lonely and confused. Enter Ah Song (Eric Tsang), a sleazy gangster and notorious womanizer, who seduces Mei Oi, eventually leaving her pregnant with his child. When the Chinatown gossips eventually get ahold of this information, the truth spreads like wildfire, leaving Ben Loy humiliated. Can their relationship be repaired? Will Ah Song pay for his crime? And will Ben Loy find a cure for his "little problem"?

Wayne Wang does a fine job adapting Louis Chu's seminal work, but the performances range from superb to stilted. Russell Wong and Cora Miao make for a cute enough couple, but Wong's acting ability is suspect in certain scenes; his dialogue comes across as a bit wooden and forced. It's also jarringly unrealisitc in the China sequences for Wong to speak English to his character's mother while she responds in Chinese. Cora Miao does a fine job, sometimes even without saying a word. When her character is home alone for the first time, she is able to convey the simple joys that a poor village girl would take in modern luxuries like running water and gas stoves - and yet she's also able to convey a sense of heartbreaking sadness.

Veteran actor Victor Wong has several hilarious scenes, as his character applies pressure to his poor son to an almost absurd degree, through cutting, guilt-leaden comments that only enhance the generational conflict. And despite his purposely annoying character, it is nice to see him get what he wants (although not in the way he might have envisioned): upon learning of Mei Oi's pregnancy, his character celebrates jubilantly - in the midst of a somber funeral! Lau Siu-Ming isn't given as much to do, but is allowed one great scene in which he confronts his daughter about her affair. His minimalist approach rings true, as Lee Gong cannot fully bring himself to say the words to the daughter he's loved from afar all these years. Rounding out the cast is Eric Tsang who makes for the perfect sleazeball Romeo, and in this case, his less-than-movie star good looks only reemphasize the desperation Mei Oi must have been feeling to yield to a cad like Ah Song.

The visual element of film takes the idea of the bachelor society to the next level, for the men in Chinatown are a huge and ever-present force in the story in a way that the novel, by nature of its form, simply cannot convey. Here, Chinatown is not an exoticized place where "the Other" dwells, but a realistic setting full of virtue and vice, and plenty of in-between. Around this turbulent marriage, Wayne Wang explores a variety of themes, from patriarchal hypocrisy to matrimonial crisis, interweaving these and other issues into a story that is simple, but ultimately effective. (Calvin McMillin, 2005) Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen