Combination Platter (1993): Tony Chan’s Debut at Sundance Film Fest

Sundance Film Festival 1993 (World Premiere Dramatic Competition—Both charm and naivet characterize Combination Platter, the directorial feature debut of Tony Chan who, at 23, is one of the youngest filmmakers this year at Sundance Film Fest.

Chan’s pleasant melodrama, concerning the assimilation of an Hong Kong immigrant in New York, looks and sounds like a first film, but it also showcases the talent of a graceful director whose promising voice may become part of a distinct Asian-American cinema.

Prospects for theatrical release seem fair for this small-budget pic that with the right handling has potential to please audiences beyond the fest circuit.

Robert (Jeff Lau), the hero of Combination Platter, is a Hong Kong immigrant in desperate need of a Greed Card. He works as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Flushing, New York, hoping to soon legalize his status and acculturate to his new surroundings. Lau’s friend Andy (Kenneth Lu) lends his help by introducing him to American women, as marriage is the safest and fastest way to become a citizen.

One of them is Claire (Colleen O’Brien), a sensitive computer programmer, who would like to believe that Lau is sincerely interested in her as a person. A romance of sort ensues until the conscientious Lau is forced to reveal his deceit.

Most of the action is set in the restaurant, which serves as a kind of human laboratory, as Lau’s contacts with the white world are largely limited to his interactions with white customers.

The film’s melodramatic structure is used as a surface to comment on the problems faced by immigrants in the U.S. Combination Platter depicts the pressure of demanding customers on waiters, the chaos in the kitchen when it gets busy, and the tensions between workers coming from Hong Kong and those from China. It also imparts the ambiance of a not terribly successful restaurant, owned by ABCs (American Born Chinese), trying to help their brethren.

Though serious, the film is not devoid of comic touches or even action. Some humor is provided by the misunderstandings between customers and waiters, stemming from the foreigners’ poor command of English. And tension is supplied by a waiter who steals money, and the sudden raids by the immigration authorities–the ultimate fear of every illegal resident.

Combination Platter is a personal, heartfelt story that at times gets too soft. But director Chan takes a new angle on a familiar story. Reversing the usual mode of examining immigrants from a mainstream perspective, in this film, white society is freshly viewed from the Asians’ P.O.V.–and from the kitchen.

Co-scripters Chan and Edwin Baker refuse to judge any of their characters, Americans or Asian, showing immense generosity of spirit. As helmer, Chan doesn’t display himself, revealing a comforting sensitivity in handling his actors. Under his guidance, all the performers, especially Jeff Lau in the lead role, play with an ease and self-effacement that are bracingly invigorating.

For most of the film, Chan creates an appropriately congenial atmosphere, though the rhythm of the different sub-plots is not varied enough; pic’s energy is too evenly distributed. Modest technical credits are congruent with the film’s intimate scale.

Credits

A Tony Chan-Bluehorse Film production.
Produced and directed by Tony Chan. Co-producer, Ulla Zwicker. Executive producers, Jenny Lee, Man Fuk Chan.
Written by Edwin Baker and Chan.
Camera: Yoshifumi Hosoya
Editors: Chan, James Y. Kwei
Music: Brian Tibbs
Art direction: Pat Summa
Sound, Rob Taz
Casting: Amanda Ma.

Running time: 84 min.

Cast

Robert……… Jeff LauJenny
Claire……..Colleen O’Brien
Sam….Lester “Chit-Man” Chan
Benny……….Colin Mitchell
Andy……………Kenneth Lu
Mr. Lee……Thomas K. Hsiung
Noriko……Eleonara Khilberg
James…………James DuMont