The acting is good. The editing is deft. And the script slices through its characters’ hypocrisies, making quick work of their obvious, desperate need. All told, there’s talent and intelligence behind Mail Order Wife, a film that chronicles one man’s attempt to marry a woman out of a catalogue. So why is it such a bad movie? Two words: fake documentary.
The subject is interesting enough. Who hasn’t wondered, upon encountering an advertisement for a mail-order-bride service, how those transactions actually play out? What kind of man would believe that purchasing contact with a disadvantaged woman from another country — with the intent to marry her, sight unseen — was anything other than ill-conceived at best and sexist and/or racist at worst? Do any of the relationships work out? What do the women involved believe they’re going to get, and do they get it? That’s why Mail Order Wife, if it had been a real documentary, could have been an interesting piece of work.
As it is, the film is “dark comedy” (more like a drama) posing as a documentary, conceived in error and delivering little more than an extended string of winces. Rather than take an honest look at an uncomfortable slice of culture, it invents a twisted story that it presents as truth — a story in which two desperate men, one of whom is the filmmaker, act out their irresponsible (even wicked) deficiencies and desires.
Here’s how it goes. Documentary filmmaker Andrew (played by co-writer and director Andrew Gurland) wants to film a man who orders a bride through the mail. He finds doorman Adrian Martin (Adrian Martinez), a dense oaf with a beat-up El Dorado and a depressing house in Queens. As a trade for permission to film Adrian’s quest, Andrew agrees to finance the transaction. Courtship begins.
Adrian selects a young Burmese woman named Lichi (Eugenia Yuan). After the couple exchange a few letters, Adrian flies her to the United States and brings her into his home. There, he instructs her in servitude, tutoring her in toilet scrubbing, can opening, and feeding mice to Chipwich, his giant snake. Whenever Lichi forgets a detail, Adrian writes it on a Post-it and sticks it to the cabinetry: for the chili, “Keep stirring,” and, after the snake feeding, “Don’t cry.” It’s one of the film’s few (bitterly) funny moments.
Before long, Adrian is exposed as not merely sexist and misogynist, but also a violator. One day, he takes Lichi to the doctor for what she believes is a routine checkup. Instead, it’s an appointment for tubal ligation surgery, which will render her unable to conceive children. When, through a translator, Lichi learns the truth, she flees the office in terror. Andrew steps in to question Adrian, and Adrian throws a fit, accusing the filmmaker of intervening. Documentary off.
Five weeks later, Lichi shows up at Andrew’s apartment with a video cassette. In it, Adrian forces Lichi into the basement and makes her strip and lick the dirty floor, among other things we are, mercifully, not shown. Appalled, Andrew invites Lichi to stay with him, on his couch, while he tries to find her work as a chef. The next six weeks pass in what appears to be a happy interlude, where Lichi perfects her cooking skills and Andrew and Merritt (Merritt Janson), his girlfriend, enjoy the outtakes. But when Lichi flies into paroxysms of jealous rage after a dinner party, we learn what filmmaker Andrew has not been willing to show us: That whenever Merritt is gone, he sleeps with Lichi. “Did you think we were going to get married just because we had sex?” he asks her, incredulous.
Good lord. Until this point, the film had given us one darkly despicable man (Adrian) and one blandly amiable one, a guy who would film an abusive “husband” without saying much about it but who, we felt, was as worried as we were. Now we have two libidinous assholes, both of whom use Lichi as a maid and sex object.
Are we supposed to laugh?
There’s nothing wrong with dark and twisted, but dark and twisted in the service of what? Mail Order Wife seems to want to say something about the men who order brides and, perhaps, those who film them. But by creating a painful stream of bad behavior (culminating in a violent plan, by the reunited Adrian and Andrew, to put Lichi in her place), it succeeds in nothing more than pointing to its own miserable perversity of spirit.
And, finally, the fake documentary is the wrong genre. Its reality-endowing quality works for sillier topics — This Is Spinal Tap, for example — but not for abuse and tragedy. At least, that’s the indication from this film, and from the 2003 train wreck titled Zero Day, which used fake documentary to rehash the high school shooting scenario. What do these films add to the subjects they attempt to tackle? Zero.