Dwayne (Chi Muoi Lo) and his sister Mai (Lauren Tom) have been living in Los Angeles for some 22 years, ever since they fled Vietnam in 1975, during the fall of Saigon, and were adopted by Harold (Paul Winfield) and Dolores (Mary Alice). Dwayne appears to be fully assimilated into U.S. culture, meaning that he listens to hiphop, eats cereal while reading the box, uses slang like “Peace, out,” and shares an easy, trusting friendship which his sweet white boy roommate Michael (Tyler Christopher). In addition, and perhaps as further testament to his assimilation, Dwayne is fretting about asking his pretty nurse girlfriend Nina (Sanaa Lathan) to marry him. After an afternoon during which the time has never been quite “right” enough to pull out the ring and pop the question, Dwayne is at his wit’s end. Partway through a barbeque at his folks’ place, he can’t get Nina’s attention, and he’s fingering the ring. Suddenly, Dwayne yells out the question, so that it seems he’s pledging his troth while in the throes of a fit of some kind. The camera cuts to reaction shots: Harold, Alice, and Nina all looking politely astonished and then, still politely, horrified. And yet everyone carries on, as if this is all just fine.
Not knowing how to react is a problem that runs throughout Chi Muoi Lo’s Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, which is named for a traditional Vietnamese dish that originated in China. Seeking some kind of settled identity within his mixed cultural heritage, Dwayne is rather scrambling about. And you’re privy to much of this process, as the film provides scenes that are immediately revealed as his “fantasies,” anxieties making their way to the visual foreground (for instance, he imagines Nina riding off with a traffic cop on the back of his motorcycle). Such images are cute, but they never have much at stake, and worse, instead of getting you inside Dwayne’s head, they tend to make you feel sorry for him or again, not sure how to take him.
With all his traumas concerning Nina, Dwayne is naturally preoccupied, which means he doesn’t see his next trauma coming. It turns out that Mai, while ostensibly secure in her marriage with the infinitely patient Vinh (Tza Ma), has also been “dealing” with her anger and feelings of displacement; because she is older than Dwayne, she has actual memories of their lives before. The result: she tracks down their birth mother in Vietnam, and brings her to the States. Once Thanh (Kieu Chinh) arrives, however, she is less interested in her daughter than in her son who frankly would rather have nothing to do with her. Thanh turns down Mai’s offer of a room (which has been in preparation for months) and moves in with Dwayne and Michael. No surprise, this leads to something of an identity crisis for Dwayne, who begins to recover his Vietnamese roots, re-adopting his birth name, Pho, and rejecting Harold and Alice. At the same time, and in a sort of secondary-plot overkill, Michael is going through his own crisis, as it comes out that his flamboyant Chinese girlfriend Samantha (Wing Chen) is a transvestite who once went by the name of Sam (she’s either pre-op or never-going-to-op, it’s never quite clear).
These emotionally charged situations are too often turned into broad comedy, showing the family members learning to accept one another despite their obvious turf anxieties. One set piece in particular illustrates the various dynamics and battles. Thanh comes with Dwayne to dinner at Harold and Alice’s, and when Thanh finds the Chinese food that Alice has prepared not quite tasty enough, she pulls out a bottle of Vietnamese sauce. Not knowing how to react again the rest of the group either abstains altogether or douses their food with the sauce, grimace, and attempt to hide their distaste. This comic-hijinksy moment is followed up by a morning-after scene, where Harold is feeling the effects of the sauce. This would be the clear cost of cultural mixing.
For all its clumsiness, however, Catfish does make some potentially pressing points. One has to do with the differences between the ways that generations handle cultural and racial disparities: while Mai often behaves as if she’s mothering or scolding Dwayne, when she’s with her mother(s), you realize that in fact, she is a daughter, trying to come to grips with her position between one culture and another, and more to the point, one mother and another. While good-natured Harold tends to stay out of the way, the two older women are hard at it in their competition, not so much for the children’s affections as their declarations of loyalty. This is surely a relationship worth exploring, but the film’s low point comes when the two mothers have it out, clawing at each other’s hair and flailing about with their balled-up fists, in Dwayne’s living room, before yet another assembly of astonished viewers.
That these viewers include Michael and Samantha is another potentially interesting issue that the film never quite wrestles to a conclusion. Michael is going through his own “issue,” insisting to Dwayne that he’s not “gay,” because Samantha looks like a girl. And Samantha, well, she’s a drama queen in most every way, and the butt of a couple of audience in-jokes when Thanh points to her as an example of an “appropriate” wife for Dwayne, as opposed to Nina. But this is tedious joking at Samantha’s and Thanh’s expense, skipping over Dwayne’s real confusions about his allegiances—to black, U.S., Vietnamese, or masculine cultures. Or, more precisely, he’s confused about whether allegiances are necessary to understand himself as a whole and worthy individual. This is a real question, and one he (or anyone, for that matter) might be better off asking without having to perform the answers for audiences, on and off screen. Too often glib in its presentation of complex concerns, at its best, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce explores the costs of passing judgments. In the end, not knowing how to react may be the most honest and potentially productive reaction.