- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

''You know how many rejections I got getting this movie made?" asks director Chi Muoi Lo, in town to promote his first feature, the ethnic domestic comedy "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce."

Not really. How about "your fair share" as a ballpark estimate?

"And more," replies the affable Vietnamese-American filmmaker, one of the youngest children in a brood of 13 who settled with their parents in West Philadelphia in 1975.

Twice exiled, his parents were Chinese emigrants to Vietnam. They fled Canton during the Communist Revolution. They departed Vietnam a week or so before the fall of Saigon. According to Mr. Lo, they prudently had anticipated and prepared for the emergency for at least a year, exchanging a lot of currency for gold to enhance their bargaining power.

Mr. Lo persuaded his two elder brothers to provide initial funding for "Catfish" by taking out second mortgages. Their faith has been redeemed by Iron Hill, a new distribution company, which acquired the production. The film was completed on a modest budget of less than $2 million.

The 32-year-old writer-director-producer also plays a principal character, Dwayne, a young man supposedly adopted years earlier by a black American couple, Harold and Dolores, portrayed by Paul Winfield and Mary Alice.

In fact, it was a package deal: Dwayne's elder sister Mai, impersonated in contemporary episodes by Lauren Tom, was adopted at the same time, while Harold was in the Army and assigned to a relocation center for Vietnamese refugees. The plot revolves around the rivalries and misunderstandings aroused, especially in maternal bosoms, by Mai's belated discovery and repatriation of her natural mother, Thanh, played by Kieu Chinh.

Dwayne, who feels culturally and emotionally closer to his adopted parents, isn't so keen about the arrival of this long-lost mother. She proves too bossy and troublesome and insists on reviving his original name, Sap.

Initially, she also moves into the apartment shared by Dwayne and his best friend, Mike, putting crimps in their dating lives. Dwayne is engaged to an infinitely patient sweetheart named Nina, played by Sanaa Lathan, recently impressive as the leading lady of "Love and Basketball."

Reviewers have questioned the wisdom of Mr. Lo's spreading himself thin while making "Catfish." He agrees that he may not be an optimum leading man but insists that the pool of suitable actors limited the options.

"I didn't want to act in this film," Mr. Lo says. "I wanted to direct only. If I have a directing career, you may never see me again. Truly, I did not write this for myself. I knew you can shortchange yourself, no matter how you slice it.

"I believe I did shortchange myself, both acting and directing. But in my age group, it's difficult to find someone who can handle an African-American vernacular. People came in but couldn't hit it. It's tough. I had the advantage of growing up in the culture, so it was easy to pull it out of my hat."

Mr. Lo adds that only four choices seemed suitable for the Vietnamese mother. All of them had appeared in "The Joy Luck Club." So had Miss Tom, who took extra persuading. At one point, Mr. Lo had cast Chinese actress Bai Ling, the exquisite discovery of "Red Corner," as Mai. He found her accent unsatisfactory, however, and then a dispute with her manager over scheduling led to an impasse.

Reverting to a kind of pidgin English that sometimes intrudes on his conversation, Mr. Lo says he asked aloud, "Why Lauren Tom no want this?" Pestering her by trans-Atlantic telephone, he discovered that she felt Mai was a very minor role. He appeased by her by writing additional scenes.

At one point, Mr. Lo thrived on the relative scarcity of Asian-American roles by being the only aspiring contender of his age group and origin.

"Our family arrived in the U.S. intact," he explains. "There were no adoptions. We were sponsored by the Jewish League, and the U.S. government placed us in West Philadelphia. It was predominantly African-American, so I grew up with African-American friends, girlfriends, surrogate mothers and cultural influences."

Mr. Lo's father prospered in business in a community dominated by Canton transplants. Relocated to Philadelphia, "he worked at anything he could get his hands on." His wife took a factory job. The children were expected to handle part-time jobs as soon as possible. The filmmaker began pitching in when he was 9, delivering papers and selling eggs.

"I was bad at so many things that people fired me a lot," he says.

No doubt understating the case, Mr. Lo observes, "[M]y parents were very busy. The kids raised each other a lot of the time. You have to. There's no way around it.

"I was not very good in any area except telling fibs and watching TV. These skills led me to acting, and I was accepted as a student at the High School of the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. The school really did help. Most kids in the arts are a little strange and need an environment to support that. An acting curriculum is OK if it's balanced by a full education.

"By the time I went to Temple University, I could see I was further along than other kids with similar aspirations. But in a year and a half, I took all the acting courses Temple had to offer."

Mr. Lo was accepted for a master's program in acting at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco.

"Always," he says, "I was the only Asian-American to compete. Wherever I went, it was the same thing. I didn't start to embrace Asian culture until I was about 22. But that's very common.

"The professional training requires you to know yourself before you play anyone else. Whatever denial I went through growing up in West Philly I had to get in touch with while enrolled at ACT."

Mr. Lo graduated, but under something of a cloud because he had gotten a jump on a professional career by auditioning for a role in the obscure 1989 Christian Slater feature "Gleaming the Cube." He played an Asian-American hood, lying about his ability to ride a motorcycle in order to cinch the part.

"I regret taking the movie," he says. "I wish I had totally concentrated on school. I wasn't commuting between San Francisco and Los Angeles for very long, but it caused obvious resentment. Not just in the other students. The teachers didn't like it, either.

"Now I have all the time in the world for building a career, so why get ahead of yourself? Once I moved to L.A., I got an agent and a steady job at Domino's Pizza. Within three months I had a TV role, and within a year and a half I was working steadily in films and television. A little more patience would not have harmed me."

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