Combination Platter

1993, NR, 84 min. Directed by Tony Chan. Starring Jeff Lau, Colleen O'Brien, Lester “chit-Man” Chan, Colin Mitchell, Ellen Syn.

REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., March 11, 1994

Befitting its title, Tony Chan's 83-minute, $250,000 independent first feature affords the viewer a tantalizing pastiche of characters, each different in nuance and flavor, but melding to produce satisfying and savory cinematic fare. Set in a Chinese restaurant in Queens, the film focuses on Robert (Jeff Lau), an honest, respectable young immigrant from Hong Kong, and his struggle with being illegal in an alien world. Faced with the daily indignities of waiting on demanding, ethnocentric Americans and the ever-looming fear of arrest and deportation, shy, traditional Robert ponders the option of marrying a U.S. citizen to obtain a precious, elusive green card. After financial negotiations with a street-smart Asian-American woman fall through, he reluctantly agrees to court Claire, a lonely Caucasian woman played with exquisitely plain, unalluring grace by Colleen O'Brien. Their scenes together comprise a halting dance of mannerly miscommunication and lay bare the painful toll of even mutual exploitation. The quiet poignancy of these scenes is offset by the clatter, bickering and jesting that punctuate the daily grind of the Szechuan Inn. Anyone who has ever waited tables will immediately recognize the intimate microcosm Chan so skillfully recreates there. From Sam the gambling addict who smiles submissively at his customers while castigating them in his native tongue to the three obstreperous, wisecracking cooks to Jennie, the young, hip American-born Asian cashier to steady customers James and Noriko, who argue incessantly but end up happily betrothed, Chen immerses Robert in a little pond teeming with cross-cultural life. And it is in the quiet calm of Robert's face that we begin to read the subtly distorted reflections of our own culture as perceived by one from another. The transference of perception becomes complete, and the film takes on a sudden, heart-pounding intensity when immigration officials show up at the Szechuan Inn. The camera pans the restaurant's basement and our pulses quicken as we, like Robert, search desperately for an adequate hiding place. Deceptively light, this Combination Platter is a satisfying repast that, contrary to form, really sticks to your ribs.

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