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‘Eat a Bowl of Tea’

By Desson Howe
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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If Hollywood summer pictures ram every thrilling flavor they can down your throat, Wayne Wang's "Eat A Bowl of Tea" is a simple request to sip gently.

Wang, the Chinese-American director who made "Chan is Missing" and "Dim Sum," likes to steep Chinese characters, traditions and mores in a little cup and sweeten the mix with a little good ol' American saccharin.

But halfway through "Tea," something starts to taste funny. Or not so funny.

It's not his choice of subject. Wang has uncovered a historical situation loaded with potential: Until after World War II, Asians were locked out of American citizenship and their wives forbidden entry into the country, which resulted in dwindling, bachelor societies in America. But with legislation such as the 1946 "War Brides Act," men could send for their relatives and suddenly the New World was open to Asians.

Wang, with screenwriter Judith ("Who'll Stop the Rain?") Rascoe, has adapted Louis Chu's 1961 novel about the subject into an initially pleasurable immigrant tale: In Chinatown, 1949, aging Wah Gay (Victor Wong) dispatches his Americanized, GI son Ben Loy (Russell Wong) to bring back a Chinese bride (the daughter of the old man's best friend) and start making grandchildren. However, when he returns -- and here's a twist -- actually in love with the woman his father sent him after, Ben Loy finds, with all the paternal pressure, he's not up to the task.

But it's director Wang who suddenly seems not up to the task. Certainly Chu had a hand in the narrative developments but -- in the context of Wang's movie -- things take a clumsy turn for the melodramatic. There's an improbable affair and an even more improbable act of revenge, which leaves that earlier charm -- and a bloodied human ear -- just lying on the floor of a cold-water flat.

But until he loses you, Wang enriches some of the oldest stories in the book -- arranged marriage, young lovers, interfering elders and the benevolent tyranny of family -- with lightly humorous, Chinese-American flavor.

As the father, Victor Wong (who in real life was a Jack Kerouac companion and one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters) is a charming, small-time manipulator. "You know what to do with this?" he asks his son, grabbing his own, uh, area of concern.

Russell Wong, as the son, makes an appropriately angelic lovebird; Hong Kong-based comedian/director Eric Tsang Chi Wai is a great rubbery dandy; and Cora Miao has doelike charm as the newlywed who -- as Lynn Ray sings "Spring in New York" over the soundtrack -- discovers excitedly her new life of gas-burning stoves and running water.

Characters such as these are Wang's best ingredient; you just wish he'd mixed a better drink this time around.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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