I’m a little embarrassed to admit that “Mail Order Wife” had me fooled. It is a mockumentary, which is to say it’s a scripted film played by actors that is made to look like a documentary. And I, not knowing a single thing about it before I pressed “play” on the DVD that the studio provided, fell for it hook, line and sinker.
Up until the closing credits, I believed I was watching a real documentary about a schlubby Queens man who sent for a wife from Burma, who treated her like a maid and lost her. I was fascinated at how involved the filmmaker became in his project, how he eschewed objectivity and fell in love with the wife, even hiding her from her husband when she finally fled his domineering household.
You will not be fooled, of course, since you know going in that it’s not real, and I suppose it’s a testament to the filmmakers’ skill that they so convincingly faked the elements of a documentary. The artifice never lets up; there are only a couple minor details in the film that would ruin the illusion (and they didn’t occur to me until later). All of the dialogue, scripted though it may have been (and much of it was surely improvised, that much I can tell), sounds natural.
In hindsight, I can view the film’s first 30 minutes as funny rather than painfully awkward. Adrian Martin (Adrian Martinez) is the desperate groom, a Super Mario Bros.-looking man who drives a giant Cadillac El Dorado and works as a doorman. He has given up on the dating scene and has found Lichi (Eugenia Yuan) in a “matchmaker” catalog. In exchange for letting filmmaker Andrew Gurland (as himself) film the whole process, Andrew funds Adrian’s purchase of Lichi’s address from the Paradise Girls company, and after three months of correspondence pays for Lichi’s trip to America.
Adrian and Lichi’s first meeting at JFK is almost unendurably uncomfortable, as he is nervous and she is demure, her head bowed, her face locked in a polite smile. He seems like a decent guy, but as soon as they’re home, he’s showing her how to scrub toilets and make chili. The next thing he shows her is how to feed a live rat to his pet python. Lichi is traumatized by the experience. I was horrified, too, feeling nothing but sympathy for this poor Burmese creature (Lichi, not the python) who has come to America only to find a boorish husband who thinks of her as his housekeeper. Were I to watch it again, knowing now that she is an actress and the scene is contrived, I would probably think it was very, very funny.
The breaking point for Lichi comes when Adrian takes her to a clinic for what she thinks is a routine check-up, only Adrian wants the doctor to snip her tubes so she can’t get pregnant. She flees the doctor’s office. Andrew suggests that Adrian might want to discuss the issue with her some more, and Adrian tells Andrew he’s tired of his “judging” him. He puts a stop to the documentary.
Five weeks later, Lichi contacts Andrew herself, with the help of a translator (Deborah Teng) who pops up from time to time to help with delicate matters. Lichi shows Andrew a videotape that Adrian has made, an amateur bondage/porn film in which she is the reluctant star. Andrew and the translator are appalled. He harbors Lichi at his apartment, continuing to film everything to see where this documentary goes.
The progression of things is funny when you think it’s real, perhaps funnier when you know it’s not. After arguments concerning her affection for pig figurines and toys, and his paranoia that she is talking about him in Burmese in her phone conversations (she’s actually talking about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Andrew finds himself being left by Lichi, too. Soon Andrew and Adrian, despite being mortal enemies by this point, scheme together to determine Lichi’s whereabouts and to get some closure. (Well, Andrew wants closure. Adrian wants “payback.” Tomato, tomahto, I guess.)
The film is a sly skewering of class warfare — Adrian’s a schmo, Andrew has a nice Manhattan apartment and fancy friends — and a pitch-perfect indictment of what idiots men are. There is one point where the scheming becomes outrageously complicated — it involves a crew member’s father posing as a new suitor for Lichi — and I thought, “How much does Andrew really think this is a good idea, and how much is he doing it just because it will make his film interesting?” I concluded that his eye for entertaining documentary footage was fueling some of his actions, but I also didn’t doubt his heart was in it, too. No plan is so byzantine and ill-fated that some guy won’t pursue it.
Andrew may not be quite on the level of Christopher Guest’s characters in his own mockumentaries, but Gurland has achieved some subtle touches that are funnier the more you think of them. He has a tendency to believe everyone except him is a nutcase, when in fact his obsessive behavior regarding Lichi is no less insane than Adrian’s. The difference in Andrew’s mind is that Adrian is a doorman. He lives in QUEENS, for crying out loud! Andrew is a Manhattanite and a filmmaker. While most mockumentaries simply use the documentary format as a medium, “Mail Order Wife” actually satirizes and deconstructs documentaries, showing the snobbery and condescension that can result from a filmmaker using another human being as his “subject.”
B+ (1 hr., 32 min.; )