Saturday, July 14, 2012

How My Father Watches Films and Eat a Bowl of Tea

As I mentioned yesterday, I was in Las Vegas over the week of Independence Day.  My father has retired there.  I hate going there in the summer because it is so hot but I could get time off work that week so I decided to visit.

My father is the only person I know with a functioning VCR.  Actually, he has three functioning VCRs.  He also has a stash of recordable VHS tapes.  He records television programs fervently.  He watches them on CRT televisions.  Occasionally, he shares with me the problems he has when a VCR breaks or a television goes bad.  It's getting harder and harder to find VCRs and CRTs.

I wonder if one day I'll be like my father.  Instead of looking for used CRTs, I'll be looking for movie theaters.

The average reader may not know or recall this but VHS tapes can be recorded at different speeds - SP, LP & EP which stands for Standard Play (fastest), Long Play & Extended Play (Slowest).  The slower the recording speed, the worse the picture quality.  The benefit is that slower speeds allow for longer recordings on the tape.  So a VHS tape can be between 4 and 6 hours depending on the speed which in my father's case depends on how many programs he is going to record while asleep.

I've watched some tapes where the picture quality is horrible.  My father doesn't seem to notice or care.  In general, I don't watch the VHS he records because of the picture quality of the tapes and the CRTs.  I guess I've become a bit selective.  I didn't get an LCD television until 2009 but I definitely notice the difference in picture quality when I watch television at my father's house.

My father saved a tape for me.  He had recorded Eat a Bowl of Tea from Turner Classics.  This film was based on a 1961 Louis Chu novel by the same name.  The quality of the recording wasn't too bad.  The thing I don't like about watching tapes or DVDs is the tendency to put the playback on pause while I do something else.  Sometimes, the pause continues for several minutes which breaks the rhythm of the film.  I did that quite a bit with Eat a Bowl of Tea.

What interested me about the film is that it was directed by Wayne Wang whose most noted film is The Joy Luck Club (1993).  Wang also made the seminal Asian American film Chan is Missing (1982).  A little internet research indicated Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989) is considered a landmark Asian American film as well.

The plot is intriguing.  Set in post-WWII New York City, a group of elderly Chinese men have formed a tight-knit community.  The Chinese Exclusion Act (can you imagine legislation with a name like that today?) made it impossible for Chinese men to bring their wives over.  Generations of men lived as bachelors in NYC while their wives stayed in China.  Chinese men who served in the US military during WWII were given the right to return to China & bring back a bride.

Two of these men are Ben Loy Wang, a WWII veteran, and Wah Gay Wang, his father.  The elder Wang plots with his best friend Gong Lee for Ben to return to China to marry Mei Oi Lee, Gong's daughter.  All goes according to plan although Mei Oi is surprisingly educated and fluent in English for living in a village without electricity or running water.

Ben had been a carefree young man before being pressured into marriage.  After returning to NYC with his bride, Ben finds the expectations have only been escalated.  He carries the burden of his parents and parents-in-law to produce a grandchild.  In addition, he is given a promotion to restaurant manager which requires quite a bit of time and effort.  The combination of the two plus the gossip around Chinatown give Ben a case of impotency which is only temporarily cured when he and Mei Oi take a vacation to Washington, DC.

Mei Oi is hurt and resentful of Ben's problems.  In the back of her mind, she thinks he only married her because he was forced to.  Initially experiencing culture shock, Mei Oi settles into a daily routine of housework, resentment and sexual frustration.  She quickly succumbs to the attention of the local cad (although the first encounter was ambiguous).  Her affair is not a secret in Chinatown and when she becomes pregnant, speculation about the parentage abounds.  The shame is enough to drive the couple to New Jersey.

I won't recount any more of the plot.  Based on book reviews, I think this is a case of the book being better than the film.  The film was too obvious and predictable.  The character of Mei Oi was softened quite a bit from the book.  Their eventual reconciliation came out left field.  I might try to find a copy of the book.

Ben Loy was portrayed by Russell Wong, Mei Oi by Cora Miao (Wayne Wang's wife) and Wah Gay by familiar character actor Victor Wong.  The title of the book & film refer to a Chinese cure for impotency.

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