Sunday, March 3, 2013


Remember Hill Street Blues? It was a big hit back in the 1980s a cop show with an ensemble cast headed by Daniel J. Travanti.  

After the show went off the air in 1987 we heard little from Travanti, though he appeared in a number of made-for-cable films, and a couple of short-lived series. It wasn’t until 2002 that he had the chance to take on what I would consider to be the role of a lifetime, this time, on the big screen.
Though Saio Yu takes its name from its young female heroine, it isat least in my opinion, Travanti’s picture. As Mario Moretti, an over-the-hill writer who hasn’t actually written anything since a nonfiction expose on the poultry industry some thirty years prior, Travanti is at his best.

I am a fan of understated acting, believing thatwith very few exceptions, less as they say, is more.  Travanti’s  demeanor tells us far more about his character than the words he is dealt on the scripted page: a script handsomely crafted by Sylvia Change, who also directed the film,  Geling Yang  and Ang Lee, the much –lauded filmmaker who was recently up for a Best Director Oscar for his work on Life of Pi. 
At its heart, this Taiwanese drama is a story of coping, hoping and living life between the lines.  It revolves around a twenty-four year old illegal immigrant named Siao Yu (Rene Liu), who came to America from Mainland China as a tourist and never went home. It was all part of a master plan engineered by the young girl’s boyfriend Gang Wei (Chung Hua Tou), who is in the country on a student visa,  and his mother. The plan, if fulfilled, would almost certainly offer the couple a chance at a better life as citizens of these United States.  

While Gang Wei’s status is at least temporarily legal, Saio Yu’s is not. As one of a dozens of young Asian women working in a sweat shop on Manhattan’s lower east side, she appears to be but a stitch away from discovery and deportation.  Gang Wei is understandably nervous, and anxious to put the plan into action, even if it means standing by as his girlfriend marries someone else.  Not just any someone, mind you, but an American someone.

Are you still with me?
You see, if Saio Yu can marry an American, and theirs is deemed to be a proper marriage, she will, as the wife of an American, get a Green card. With that card in hand she can then divorce the American, marry Gang Wei, and ride off into the sunset.  

At least that’s the plan.

The trick, of course, is to find an American who is willing to go along with the charade, while making it appear to the ever-vigilant authorities that theirs is, in fact, a ‘real’ marriage.
Where to turn, where to turn? Hardly.

Of course, just about anything – even a male-order bridegroom, can be had if you have enough green. A buddy down at the docks where Gang Wei works introduces him to a guy who knows a guy who has arranged five such hitches without a glitch. The price? A paltry ten thousand dollars–a bargain!
Which brings us to Mario, who, it seems, has a bit of a gambling problem. As the film opens he’s in big trouble, with a $9,000 marker he has no way of repaying.  One not-so-subtle warning punch- in-the-stomach later, Mario’s got the message: pay up, or you’re going down.

Which brings us back to our couple, and the ever-so-helpful matchmaker. Turns out he’s the same guy Mario is into for the nine grand, which makes for some interesting negotiations.
When the deal is done, the couple has handed over their life-savings. In return, they get their American bride groom, who hands over his portion of the transaction to the big boss, erasing his gambling debt and allowing him to live  another day. And the extra thousand? Call it postage and handling or better yet, a finder’s fee. 

Match made. Debt paid. Life saved. All is well.
Hell-o Dolly! 

Ten thousand-under-the-table-dollars later, Siao Yu meets the man of her schemes. Some forty years her senior, Mario appears to be far older than his years, drinking, smoking and gambling his way into oblivion. Burnt-out, washed up and over the hill, it would appear that he is but a cough away from the coffin.
After a brief ceremony, a wedding photo is taken to mark the occasion. It is a gesture intended to document the marriage rather than preserve the memory.  Of course the immigration authorities have seen it all before, and know that such unholy unions are all too common. It doesn’t take them long to get on the case, showing up at Mario’s apartment all hours of the day and night to see if the couple is reallya couple.  It soon becomes apparent that if they’re going to get away with this sham of a marriage, they’re going to need a lot more than a photograph and marriage license.

And so it is that, with great reluctance,  Saio Yu moves into her new husband’s cramped apartment: a move that does not sit well with Gang Weior Mario for that matter, who didn’t sign up for a roommate.
Before long, one glitch begets another, and another, and another, as more people, problems and personalities come into play. How these characters cope, evolve, and resolve their problems makes for an interesting hour-and forty-four minutes-worth of bitter-sweet moments and unexpected revelations laced with a modicum of humor.  

Adapted from Yang's novel, Saio Yu is less about plot than it is about relationships: a story of opportunities lost, and chances taken.  A tale of love and jealousy, worry and wonder, friendship and deception, intervention and contemplation. Its characters are as well-drawn as its story is compelling.
If I have one complaint or issue with the film, it is in its resolution. Not quite pat, but not quite perfect. Then again, few things are.

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