Good Combination

As its title indicates, Combination Platter fits nicely into the Chinese-American food-film genre, joining Dim Sum, Eat a Bowl of Tea and The Wedding Banquet. Like that last film, Combination Platter follows a young Chinese man, Robert (Jeff Lau), in search of a green-card marriage. But Combination Platter is not nearly as plot-driven as its wonderfully screwball predecessor. That it's virtually plotless is one of its pleasures, in fact. Instead of story we get character and milieu, and learn quite a bit about both.

Robert is a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Queens (New York City's "number two Chinatown"), where he is joined by an Anglo busboy, a young Chinese-American cashier and a number of other undocumented Chinese workers. So he's not the only one in search of a green-card honey. But the film is just as interested in the relationships between the various strains of Chinese, and between the Chinese and their Anglo neighbors, as in immigration woes. In this restaurant, the cooks speak Mandarin and the waiters Cantonese. Each group despises and harasses the other, as well as teams up to scorn Occidentals. If you've ever been afraid you were being ridiculed in a foreign language, this film will feed that paranoia.

The many language barriers are often played for laughs -- which are more of the chuckle variety -- but not always. There's a poignant, utterly natural moment between Robert, who speaks Cantonese, and a Mandarin-speaking co-worker. Robert is losing heart (as opposed to his heart) in his efforts to find an American wife. The daily grind of his existence has him wondering whether his sojourn in the U.S. is worth the pain. While waiting for the restaurant to open, he tries to talk about his fading dreams with his fellow worker, but the two men can't understand each other.

This is a film of similar little moments. Each trip a waiter makes to attend to a demanding customer has its own interest. With a few exceptions, the lazily arrogant Anglos are so well observed that they feel like real people rather than crude stereotypes. One couple, a domineering Anglo man and his petulant girlfriend of unspecified Asian extraction, appears a handful of times and becomes surprisingly likable. The two give the film its final generosity, and its loosely knit plot a bit of a story arc.

Robert's narrative gets no resolution, but by film's end you'll likely guess that his days in America are numbered. He's finally both too honorable and too self-effacing to impose himself on the United States. "You have to be aggressive in America," he's told, but he doesn't have it in him. It's the sense that his decency is tested and remains intact, along with the film's nuanced sense of cultural complexity, that makes Combination Platter so satisfying. Though the quality of the print being shown here is poor -- its colors are burned out in places -- the story's multicultural savvy and delicate sense of proportion more than compensate.

-- David Theis


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