WAYNE WANG burst on the filmmaking scene a few years ago with ``Chan Is Missing,'' an exciting and innovative comedy-mystery about a vanished Chinatown taxi driver. Even its title announced Mr. Wang's intention to create a new kind of Chinese-American cinema in which the old stock characters - like detective Charlie Chan, the granddaddy of them all - would be totally and pointedly absent. Wang seemed the ideal artist for this enterprise, a gifted young cin'easte steeped in film theories, yet eager to entertain as well as enlighten. It's no fun to report that his later films haven't quite lived up to his early promise. The family drama ``Dim Sum'' was gentle and charming but unfortunately slight, and the rambunctious ``Slamdance'' seemed a failed attempt to cook up a mass-market entertainment by giving fashionable formulas a pallid new twist. While his newest release, ``Eat a Bowl of Tea,'' marks a bit of a comeback after the ``Slamdance'' disaster, it's not strong enough to be called a full-scale success.
The story takes place in New York's teeming Chinatown shortly after World War II, when immigration laws didn't allow Asian-American men to bring their families into their adopted country. When the legal situation abruptly changes in 1949, the hero of the movie takes himself promptly to China and returns with an attractive young bride. This delights the older men of the community, but it isn't enough for them - they want the couple to produce a baby, too, and as quickly as possible. The resulting pressure on the newlyweds is the source of much of the movie's comedy - and drama, especially when the wife's affections start straying from her uptight husband and eventually fix themselves on a local gambler who's one of the neighborhood's sleaziest characters.
``Eat a Bowl of Tea'' is partly a look at the manner in which folkways and mores continue to hover over a culture even when people are transplanted into very new surroundings and situations. (In this way it resembles the Japanese drama ``Black Rain,'' about the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, a much more somber film due in the United States soon.) It's also a study of loneliness, particularly when it focuses on the young bride, who finds herself transported almost instantly to an unfamiliar land full of unfamiliar - and often rowdily rude - people she must deal with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the film doesn't delve very deeply into either of these potentially fascinating areas. Instead, it puts far too much of its energy into detailing the amiable crudeness of the male Chinese community, filling the screen with characters whom Wang finds a lot more charming than many moviegoers will. Even the title, which has little to do with anything substantive that happens in the film, seems less an effort to illuminate the story than a rote attempt to let us know that cuteness and a kind of domestic exoticism are the movie's main concerns.
``Eat a Bowl of Tea'' has appealing performances by Russell Wong and Cora Miao as the married couple. (Ms. Miao is Wang's wife, and they have a strong professional rapport in each of their films together.) Wang's frequent collaborator Victor Wong has a lot of energy, if not much else, as the young man's pushy father. They keep the movie jogging along even when the screenplay fails to recognize its own best possibilities - quite missing the depths and subtleties of the bride's plight, for example, and allowing her poignant situation to be overtaken by movie-style melodrama.
Since completing ``Eat a Bowl of Tea,'' the busy Wang has made another film called ``Life Is Cheap ... But Toilet Paper Is Expensive,'' which I won't comment on since it hasn't opened yet - except to note that it moves back toward the unconventional and even experimental urges that set ``Chan Is Missing'' apart from the common herd. This indicates that the still-promising Wang hasn't lost his aspiration to accomplish something genuinely new and different in cinema. More's the pity that little of this aspiration is visible in ``Eat a Bowl of Tea,'' which falls into patterns as unoriginal as they are unexciting.