Political Film Society - Newsletter #74 - June 15, 2000

June 15, 2000


Catfish in Black Bean Sauce is directed, written, and acted by Sino-Vietnamese Chi Moui Lo, who left Vietnam at the age of six, was sponsored by the Jewish League of America and grew up with his nine brothers and three sisters in Philadelphia before demonstrating his many talents in Hollywood. The tagline of the film is "A Vietnamese brother and sister, raised by an African American couple, are reunited with their birth mother after twenty-two years." The film centers on a brother Sap, renamed Dwayne (played by Chi Moui Lo), and his sister Mai (played by Lauren Tom) who were separated from their parents during the fall of Saigon and then adopted by an African-American couple, Harold and Dolores Williams (played by Paul Winfield and Mary Alice). Harold, deeply loved by both refugees, is employed at an adoption agency operated by the U.S. government. Mai, however, never accepted her adoptive mother Dolores and searched for her birthmother Thanh (played by Khieu Chinh) for twenty-two years before finding her. Central to the story is an engagement between Dwayne, who is branch manager at a bank that caters to African-Americans, and Nina (played by Sanaa Lathan), an attractive African American college graduate who is awaiting word about job prospects. A second romance is between Dwayne's male Caucasian roommate Michael (played by Tyler Christopher) and Samantha, a fellow Vietnamese refugee (played by Wing Chen), unaware that his "girlfriend" is in drag. The third romance involves Mai, who has married Vinh (played by Tzi Ma), another refugee from Vietnam. When Thanh arrives from Vietnam, Mai has no room for her, so she is housed with Dwayne and Michael, bringing a doting mother together with an assimilated refugee who at first does not want to be bossed around by his birthmother as if he were still a child.

Thanh's assertiveness causes several relationships to go ballistic, especially when she raises questions about the propriety of the impending marriage of her son, whom she insists should be called Sap again. At one point Dolores and Thanh come to blows; but, after everyone cools down, reconciliation is ultimately achieved. With much humor, the point of the story lurks behind the human conflicts. To be allowed into the United States, for example, refugees must have sponsors, but the refugees have no say in who their foster parents are. Moreover, the task of adopting children from a troubled land is no picnic. Older refugees want to impose the values of the old country onto their children, who in turn are eager to become Americanized. The most poignant incident involves a very young brother and a sister who are told at the adoption agency that they are to be split up despite a tearful plea by the older sister. As a window into the human difficulties faced by many refugees from Vietnam, the film has a more optimistic outlook than last year's Political Film Society nominee Bastards, but the social problems identified in Catfish in Black Bean Sauce are clearly worthy of a Political Film Society nomination for best film exposť of the year 2000. MH

Following up a successful panel at the Western Political Science Association convention at San Jose in March, the Political Film Society invites members to present papers on a panel at the annual convention of the Western Political Science Association, to be held in Las Vegas March 15-17, 2001. Proposals should be forwarded to Michael Haas at POB 461267, Hollywood, CA 90046.