EAT A BOWL OF TEA
Directed by Wayne Wang
New director’s cut
There were Asian American directors before Wayne Wang, but suffice to say, Asian American cinema and what it means to be an Asian American film artist and professional would never be the same after he revolutionized the scene in 1982 with the seminal Chan is Missing. After the critical and box office achievements of his debut, Wang would find unprecedented success in mainstream, indie, and international realms while committing to an artistic and thematic restlessness that would lead to films as diverse as The Joy Luck Club (1993), Smoke (1995), The Center of the World (2001), Last Holiday (2006), and Soul of a Banquet (2014).
Early on, Wang knew the pitfalls of becoming pigeonholed as a “Chinese American” director, and perhaps better than any other filmmaker, he has successfully parlayed that into a career of relative freedom while still keeping an ear to stories from Chinese America. His work in the latter category also shows the extent to which Wang has always understood the importance of expanding the terrain of Asian American cinema to include places like Hong Kong or China, especially in narrating the uniquely Chinese American illusion of “returning” to a motherland that may no longer be accessible. Films like Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985), Life is Cheap…But Toilet Paper is Expensive (1989), and The Joy Luck Club in their own ways flesh out a history of Chinese America’s relationship to “China” as it has transformed politically and culturally throughout the 20th century.
Wang’s 1989 film EAT A BOWL OF TEA perhaps best tells that history with lively period detail and in a mode that has long been one of Wang’s best: the comedy. We’re immediately thrust into that strange period after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act but before the Communist Revolution. It’s early 1949 in New York City, and the bachelor society of old Chinese men, never able to bring their wives from China to start families, had a window in which to find brides in China for their few sons.
And so Wah Gay (the great Victor Wong) sends his dashing WWII vet son Ben Loy (Russell Wong) to his hometown, from which he returns with the lovely Mei Oi (Cora Miao). Trouble is, whether it’s the stress of his new job managing a restaurant, his conflicted relationship with his Chinese bride, or the pressure of carrying decades of a community’s hopes, Ben is unable to father a child. This results in gossip, adventure, and hilarity that manages to be both cripplingly tragic but also hopeful for other possibilities of being Chinese American.
Shown in a new director’s cut, EAT A BOWL OF TEA is still a refreshing, entertaining, and landmark work of Asian American cinema, a rare period film and an even rarer comedy that gives juicy parts to older Asian American actors. In its production and ambition, EAT A BOWL OF TEA was ahead of its time. But that’s always been the case for Wayne Wang, recipient of this year’s SDAFF Lifetime Achievement Award. –Brian Hu
Writer: Judith Rascoe
Starring: Cora Miao, Russell Wong, Victor Wong