Although it never deadens itself with too much period detail, you can almost touch the 1940s atmosphere in Wayne Wang's film, the dark rooms and grey streets occasionally filtered by cold sunlight. 'Eat A Bowl Of Tea' recreates a crucial moment in Chinese-American history - the relaxing of inequitable immigration laws that had prevented Chinamen bringing their women into the country, and the subsequent influx of young female life into the sterile world of old men - with little historical fanfare, and maximum attention to human experience. Wah Gay is a successful club owner who hasn't seen the wife he left behind in 20 years, and who despairs at ever seeing his frivolous son, who served in the US Army during the war (the mass of Chinese who had done so causing the laws to be repealed) ever settling down and continuing his line. He sends him back home to marry a friend's daughter, bring her back, take a good job and start a family. All these pressures, unfortunately, make the young man impotent, and his frustrated wife is forced to take a lover.
As the film starts, with its wisecracking Greek chorus, its warm 40s look and its 40s jazz standards on the soundtrack, you might almost be watching a Chinese Nora Ephron film. The struggles of individuals against the community begins to take a starker turn as the film progresses, and characters become alienated from each other. The film is full of images and situations in which Chinese and American cultures confront one another, sometimes to harmonious effect, but just as often clashing. For instance, during the arranged courtship in China, the couple's first moment alone on screen is against the backdrop of an open-air projection of 'Lost Horizon', a famous American film about the Orient, whose English is translated by the village sage (the media and representations are important elements in 'Eat'). When the couple holiday in Washington to try and escape the pressures of community and finally make love, the familiar American landmarks are overlaid with Chinese music. The very real human problems - family, marriage, impotence, work - are shown to be indistinguishable from crises over identity; Ben Loy's impotence, his failure to continue the line and complete the Oedipal process, is a sign of his inability to unite Chinese and American, old wisdom and new entrepreneurialism, communal expectation and private desires.
The increasing sobriety of the film's themes is matched in Wang's style, in which the camera rarely moves, as in the cinema of Ozu, another Eastern film-maker who dealt with tensions of family and modernity. Wang doesn't seek Ozu's serenity, however, and the still camera is countered by great movement within the frame, stylised compositions and frequent cuts. Like a Sirk melodrama, the surface realism is undercut by artificial tableaux that encourage us to read against what we see.