With humor and poignancy, Tony Chan's "Combination Platter" (Music Hall) pulls us into the challenging and uncertain everyday life of an illegal immigrant. It's a gritty but warm low-budget film of deceptive simplicity. A first-time director, Chan hasn't much sense of rhythm, and sometimes a feeling of self-consciousness creeps into routine exchanges between people. These aspects of the film matter little, however, in the light of all that Chan accomplishes. Few films explore so thoroughly the role of cultural identity in creating unconscious racism--and with such a subtle, light touch.
Chan's wistful hero, Robert (Jeff Lau, a formidably low-key actor), is a sort of Asian Lyle Lovett, a homely but earnest and likable young man working as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Flushing, Queens, which has become New York's second Chinatown. He works hard and unobtrusively, dutifully sending money to his parents in Hong Kong. His main concern is obtaining the all-important green card. His sympathetic employer (Thomas K. Hsiung) feels business is too slow for him to absorb the tax penalties of sponsoring Robert, and even if he were to do so, it would take Robert five years to get his card. Naturally, Robert would like to speed up the process, enabling him to bring his parents to America, but the only way to accomplish this is to marry an American citizen.
When a glamorous Chinese American woman ups her price from $25,000 to $50,000 to marry Robert for convenience, he eventually allows his friend Andy (Kenneth Lu) to set him up with a white woman, the plain but vivacious Claire (Colleen O'Brien). Robert and Claire seem to be a realistic match, but "Combination Platter" unexpectedly turns out not to be a contemporary "Marty" after all. Chan shows Robert and Claire's relationship to be but a part--and a subsidiary one at that--of Robert's life.
Most of the film, in fact, takes place in the restaurant, which gives "Combination Platter" its broad perspective. In his choice of key locale, Chan, whose parents own the actual restaurant in the film, is able to break through the monolithic view whites so often have of Chinese people.
Within the restaurant's staff there is a language barrier between those Chinese who speak only Cantonese and those who speak only Mandarin. Then there's the owner's pretty American-born niece Jennie (Ellen Synn), the restaurant's cashier, who knows neither dialect--and eats Chinese food with a fork instead of chopsticks; she complains good-naturedly that the "Chinese think of me as American, and the Americans think of me as Chinese." (Perhaps because it's a view from within, Chan is awfully hard on the restaurant's white patrons; didn't Chan's parents ever have any polite or pleasant white patrons?)
Ironically, Jennie's unfamiliarity with her ancestral language puts her in a situation similar to that of the restaurant's only white employee (Colin Mitchell), who's razzed by his friends for working in a Chinese restaurant in the first place. All these observations, which are alternately played comically and seriously, provide a crucial, invaluable context for Robert's revealing remark about his feelings for Claire: "If only she weren't American. . . ."
At once Chan is able to create suspense--will the relationship go anywhere? Will Claire be hurt?--and to suggest how those so often the targets of racism can be susceptible to it themselves, albeit innocently. And in dealing with the plight of the illegal immigrant, Peter Weir's "Green Card" was a delightful romantic comedy but in comparison, "Combination Platter" comes across as the genuine article.
Jeff Lau: Robert
Colleen O'Brien: Claire
Lester (Chit-Man) Chan: Sam
Colin Mitchell: Benny
Kenneth Lau: Andy
An Arrow release. Producer-director Tony Chan. Executive producers Jenny Lee, Man Fuk Chan. Screenplay by Edwin Baker, Tony Chan. Cinematographer Yoshifumi Hosoya. Editors Tony Chan, James Y. Kwei. Music Brian Tibbs. Art director Pat Summa. Sound Rob Taz. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.
\o7 Times-rated Mature for complex adult situations. Times guidelines: some harsh language. \f7