Eat a Bowl of Tea

Written by Patrick Hao

73/100

Wayne Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea begins with narration discussing the predicament that Chinese American communities found themselves in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886 had prevented many Chinese men from bringing to America their wives and daughters. This created a “Bachelor Society ” in the various Chinatown’s, stunted by the lack of single Chinese women and the taboo of inter-racial dating. However, with World War II, China as allies, and the returning Chinese G.I.’s, America was loosening its immigration policies and beginning to allow veterans to bring home Chinese wives.

This socio-political dynamic is the backdrop of Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, a woefully underseen film by a woefully under-discussed filmmaker. Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Louis Chu, the film centers on Ben Loy (Russell Wong), a GI returning from WWII in New York City’s Chinatown, who is sent by his father Wang Wah Gay (played by frequent Wang collaborator Victor Wong), back to his hometown in China to bring back an arranged bride, Mei Oh (played by Wang’s wife Cora Miao), the daughter of one Wah Gay’s gambling buddies. As one of the first couples in New York Chinatown of child bearing age, they are expected to produce offspring to continue the survival of a community. 

“I feel like everyone is watching,” Ben admits to his Mei at one point in the film. This concept of a community gawking is prevalent throughout the film. When Ben goes to China to meet his bride, he is met with the curious eyes of many of the Chinese villagers who have never met an American Chinese before. Rumors abound that an American GI would not have all four limbs, and be mangled by war. At the wedding banquet back in New York City, the young couple are met with the prying eyes of hundreds of geriatric Chinese men as they represent the future of a dying community and as the source of Ben’s father’s newfound reputational prestige within the community. The pressure from the community for a baby manifests itself in Ben’s impotence. And for Mei, being in a new country with no true community of her own, loneliness.

Yet, despite the weightiness of these themes, Wang’s film is breezy and casually funny, couching the politics of diaspora and gender in the structure of a Classic Hollywood romantic comedy. Wang’s power as a filmmaker is his richly textured observation of a people in a time and place. His subtle gestures and characterizations of the community gives them specificity, which in turn, becomes universal. The film almost becomes a series of vignettes as it jumps from a gaggle of old men joking and gossiping in the barbershop to Ben stopping fights in the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant he comes to manage. In doing so, Wang paints a beautiful tableau of a community in transition, affecting family, sex, and culture. 

Eat a Bowl of Tea seems particularly informed by Classic Hollywood films in more ways than just genre. Wang seems to be in conversation with films of Classic Hollywood. In one particularly clever critique of Classic Hollywood, Ben and Mei share their first kiss silhouetted by Ronald Colman’s face from Lost Horizon. In another scene, during the height of his impotence, Ben is especially titillated by Rita Hayworth from The Lady from Shanghai, to the point he rushed home with his wife to take advantage. These two films being used is especially pointed for being representative of pop culture’s blatant exoticisism of the “Orient.” The two films are also representative of the two desires that inform the themes of Eat a Bowl of Tea – the desire for preservation of a community and the desire for sex. 

However, this is by no means a perfect film. Russell Wong is in the Henry Goulding camp of handsome but uncharismatic leading men. The original novel is also sadder and more caustic. Wang and screenwriter, Judith Roscoe, purposefully sanded off some of the edges of the source material to be lighter and more winsome. The results are the loss of some of Mei’s interiority and a third act that feels a bit too tidy. Wang himself has tinkered with edits of the film in re-screenings, including a less “happy ending” that was foisted upon him by the studio.

However, Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wayne Wang’s career feel ripe for rediscovery. The recent retrospectives on The Joy Luck Club and focus on AAPI-centric filmmakers always feels light in its consideration of Wang and his career. Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wang’s other works such as Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, Chan is Missing, and more recent independent works like Princess Nebraska should make him a name that is worth considering in line with Ang Lee and the recent crop of Asian American filmmakers like Alice Wu, Lulu Wang, and Andrew Ahn.

Eat a Bowl of Tea is especially notable for its place as one of the first studio films to have an all-Chinese cast. The only white person with a speaking role is an uncredited Jessica Harper. More importantly, the film feels enlightening in its depiction of a period of Chinese American history that is often ignored, and its frank depiction of the politics intersecting sex, gender, and tradition. Yet it never becomes a film that feels like its purpose is to deliver a didactic “message” or a history lesson. Wang’s film is lived in with all the thorniness and haphazardness of real life. Much like a bowl of tea in its idiomatic title, all that bitterness of the film’s themes goes down surrounded by the warmth of Wang’s rich filmmaking.

Eat a Bowl of Tea Trailer

Eat a Bowl of Tea is currently available to purchase and rent on most digital storefronts.

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King Kong (1933)

Written by Nick McCann

94/100

There is no other like the Eighth Wonder. Who could’ve thought in the 1930’s that movies can get so big? Sure talkie pictures had been around for a while and there were some B-pictures that came and went. However, none could compare to what RKO would release smack-dab in the middle of a poverty-stricken nation. After years of production and a ton riding on ambition, King Kong released and changed the course of cinema for decades to come. Today, it’s still nothing short of thrilling.

Our story is one of adventure and wonder. It’s a mythic tale about what happens when man discovers a living legend and his reaction. This movie doesn’t waste any time as it moves with efficient progression. It’s setup keeps you on your toes until a grand reveal that kicks off a primal thrill ride. Even with some outdated aspects, the plot holds up well as one of the finest cinematic adventures to this day.

Much of that is owed to Kong himself, along his island of danger. This film marked a major landmark in special effects filmmaking and it shows. Willis O’Brien’s stop motion creature effects are a show-stealer in the best way. It may not be as fluid as what would later come, but they are delightful. Every new dinosaur encounter keeps the action fresh and Kong himself displays a lot of character for being a 3-inch figurine. Miniature sets are also highly detailed, on top of clever uses of animatronics and rear-projection work. Bottom line, every effects sequence shows genuine work put into them and they are still a marvel.

One could also gather that the action sequences are just as much of a spectacle. For it’s time, there are some visceral sequences of dinosaur carnage and peril. From the famous sacrifice to the last stand on the Empire State Building, there is variety around every corner. Production design is spot on with great sets, sound design is highly rich and Max Steiner’s score captures emotion and scale beautifully. Sure a lot of it looks fake now, but I don’t care. It still gets me going like any big picture today.

All of this is kept grounded with well rounded characters. Robert Armstrong, as the film director Carl Denham, exudes charisma and bravado. One look at this guy will tell you he is a man of composure for how crazy he can be. Fay Wray also brings beauty as Ann Darrow. She’s likable as she tries to fit in around places, although she does turn into a scream machine any chance she gets. Finally, Bruce Cabot makes for both a voice of reason and a reliable man of action in Jack Driscoll. These three characters are sound in their standing within the story and perform well throughout.

King Kong is so important it hurts. The fact it inspired some of our best modern cinematic geniuses and people generally are still talking about it today marks it’s continuing success. It’s filmmaking breakthroughs are matched by it’s timeless, fantastical story. Age is just a number, as they say. Go see this one if you haven’t yet. No excuses!

King Kong 1933 Trailer

King Kong (1933) is currently available to stream on HBO Max

You can connect with Nick on his social media profiles: Facebook and Letterboxd.