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‘Eat a Bowl of Tea’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 01, 1989


Wayne Wang
Cora Miao;
Russell Wong;
Victor Wong;
Lau Siu Ming
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"Eat a Bowl of Tea," Wayne Wang's tale of Chinese immigrants in New York after the Second World War, never really seems to get going. The movie has its share of melodrama; there's the exoticism of a prearranged marriage, impotence, infidelity, even a severed ear. But Wang can't seem to bring his story to a boil. It simmers endlessly, until all the flavor's gone.

Wang has said that the film is a return to "the source of myself." But the picture, based on Louis Chu's novel about the end of a U.S. ban on the immigration of Chinese men with their wives, shows no sign whatsoever of personal investment or experience. Instead, it's tepid and impersonal in a manner that we usually associate with commissioned projects.

Perhaps this is the inevitable blandness that seeps into every attempt to interpret a foreign culture to a mainstream American audience. Wang creates a whole community of Chinese characters, most of whom have been living in New York's Chinatown as married bachelors since coming to this country. These men, some of whom have never even seen their own children, appear to have adjusted to this decades-long estrangement from their families with remarkable ease. They write letters stuffed with money to their wives back home, but generally they carry on happily, playing mah-jongg at the club and forming long lines at the bordello. If there is grief over their predicament, it never surfaces.

One of these characters retains his unique personality without becoming an eccentric ethnic cartoon. As Wah Gay, the round-bellied owner of the neighborhood gambling club, Victor Wong is like a Chinese Edward G. Robinson. (A scene in which he steps out of the tub wearing only a bath towel and a cigar is an hommage to Robinson's character in "Key Largo.")

When Wah Gay's son, Ben Loy (Russell Wong), brings home his beautiful Chinese bride, Mei Oi (Cora Miao), the couple immediately become the focus of all the community's hopes for renewal. Wah Gay glories in the boost in "face" he receives from his son's prominence and, puffing out his chest, he walks with a new swagger in his step.

Unfortunately, the film shifts its focus to the kids, and neither the characters nor the actors playing them are nearly as engaging. Bright with expectation, the old male hens watch to see if Mei Oi will begin to put on weight or show other signs that she is pregnant. But, tired from his long hours at his restaurant and feeling pressured by the curiosity of his countrymen, Ben Loy has performance problems. This is such a great comic subject that it seems impossible for Wang to muff it, but the scenes in which the couple struggle to launch their family are ruthlessly protracted and dead serious. And they kill the movie. After it's over, only the memory of Wong's wondrously crooked leer remains.

"Eat a Bowl of Tea" is rated PG-13 and contains some inoffensive adult material.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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