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Sept. 21, 2000

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  Catfish in Black Bean Sauce mixes more than spices in this charming film about culture and family

By Amy Diaz
Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (Rated PG-13)

Families are crazy - a well-worn axiom proven once again in Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, another charming little indie.

Mai (Lauren Tom) and her younger brother Sap/Dwayne (Chi Muoi Lo, and I'll explain his name in a minute) are refugees from the Vietnam war. Separated from their parents, they arrive in the US as orphans. Harold (Paul Winfield) and Dolores Williams (Mary Alice) are a childless African-American couple who see the children as their chance for a family. Now grown, the kids reunite with their long lost mother, much to the dismay of their adopted mother Dolores. Mai wants most to see her mom. Though she is close to Dolores in ways she doesn't fully recognize, Mai keeps herself at arms length from the Williams family, calling them by their first names, retaining her Vietnamese. Sap, on the other hand, has become so Americanized, and specifically, African-Americanized, that he is now Dwayne and speaks in black slang.

In addition to their reintroduction to their mother, Mai and Dwayne have their own problems, including Dwayne's shaky relationship with his black girlfriend and Mai's husband who vacillates between being supportive and being a pain in the ass. Add to this their two mothers - who aren't very fond of each other - and the whole mix-of-cultures thing and you get why Thanksgiving in this family is never going to be easy.

This movie does a good job of showing how quickly immigrants become American and how that can impact their relationships with the people and the culture they left behind. Dwayne spends a lot of the movie confused because he feels like a black man trapped in a Vietnamese man's body. (The movie presents an interesting little analogy for this situation.) Mai wants very much to be her mother's daughter - either one, really - but she comes to realize that she might not fit anybody's expectations of a daughter.

Considering its interesting story, Catfish contains some very adequate to mediocre acting. Nobody really stands out. Mai tends to look like she's a sharp exchange away from hysterics. The moms are a little too Lifetime-movie about their emotions.

Catfish in Black Sauce has some choppy moments and a few scenes of weirdness, enough to remind us that it's an indie. Mostly, this family comedy is a lumpy, yet entertaining look at someone else's dysfunctions.

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