This film has taken the fake reality formula and perfected it.
Mail Order Wife is the story of New York City filmmaker Andrew Gurland, who funds the marriage of Burmese mail order bride, Lichi, to Adrian Martin under the condition of being able to capture the entire affair on film. It quickly becomes clear that Martin is using her mainly for “housekeeping” duties. Oh yeah, he’s also filming weird sex videos with her. This is where Andrew gets involved and starts having a relationship with Lichi. After a bumpy road, they eventually get together, but things within their relationship soon become very strained and Lichi moves on. In a weird turn of events, Adrian and Andrew, who really don’t like each other, eventually team up so that Andrew can have “closure” and Adrian can have “pay back”.
I don’t want to go too much into the plot because I feel it is too well crafted and conceived for me to give you a blow by blow here. Let me just say, that the ending seems satisfying for all parties concerned. By this, I mean it seems that everyone(well maybe not Adrian) learns a little bit more about themselves. Mainly, the kinds relationships they do and don’t want to be in, and within those relationships what they feel they need.
What makes this film work, what really makes it a cut above many of the “mock docs” that I have seen is the acting and the writing. I do not know how much of it was scripted or improvised, but lets just say, there were no moments where I felt that this film was trying to be too timely or speak to the issues of the present day. It really seemed to capture life as it is. Even though I am sure everything was staged, it was all done in such a way that I never felt a line was crossed. I never felt taken out of the reality of the film. When Andrew takes in Lichi, and starts having relations with her(even though he has a girlfriend), he thinks nothing of it. The way he conducts himself, it really is sort of sad how eventually he becomes almost obsessed with having Lichi, only when he knows that he can’t have her. There are so many universal truths and themes captured within this movie, but they are never overstated and you are never beaten over the head by them. They are there and whether the camera examines them for 10 seconds or 10 minutes, I never felt that I was watching a movie that took on too many themes. In a word, Mail Order Wife, works.
Eugenia Yuan who plays Lichi is perfectly cast. Having many memories of foreign exchange students coming to my elementary school, I was heavily reminded of how they projected themselves outwardly. Yuan plays every scene with the right amount of tone. Whether she’s meeting a “groom” for the first time in an airport, or after awhile when she’s been in the states and starts to assert herself, everything just seems honest. You really get the feeling that this is how somebody would act during a moment like this in their lives. Especially when one considers the situations she has before her, I was very impressed. There is a level of acting that goes beyond the basics. You either have it or your don’t. The camera can be on you and you just are able to be within your role. You know what to do. I really think we are going to see more of Eugenia Yuan in the years to come. I don’t know if this is her first film or her 21st, but whatever the case may be, she is certainly a talent who knows how to fully embody a character so it doesn’t appear as if she is even acting.
Andrew Gurland has an interesting role because he is the exact opposite of Adrian, yet what begins as a heroic gesture, him letting Lichi stay with him, eventually devolves into him treating Lichi not too much better then Adrian. Adrian you can forgive because he doesn’t seem to know any better. Gurland seems like the worst kind of creep because everything he does he seems to do out of kindness. It is as though he represents the worst form of liberalism. This role is pulled off so well that when it does become more comical, like in the end scenes with Curt Botko(terrifically played by Paul Thornton), Andrew really seems like he’s bordering on madness. He plays exasperation perfectly.
Adrian Martinez. I hated him but in the best way. This guy is such an idiot. Such a fool. So overt, yet thinking he’s covert in his intentions, that you are happy when Yuan leaves him. The best part is that she leaves him, comes back to him and then leaves him again. He was someone who I wanted to see fail. Yet, as the film moved on and he reenters the picture towards the end, he is so angry, so beside himself that Lichi would do what she’s done to him, that this is where the real comedy starts. At this point and at the very end when he conducts a toast, I found that I kind of liked him a little bit. Not that he changed at all. Not that he learned a single thing from this experience, but just because he made me laugh. He felt like he got his “pay back” and now he is happy. Content with what life has given him and no better or worse for it
Mail Order Wife is a very enjoyable movie. I don’t know what kind of audience it will have because it might seem too inaccessible for older audiences, and not “cool” enough for the younger audiences. Or, it might be just fine for both of them. I certainly hope so, because while Mail Order Wife may be an adult film(in terms of themes and subject matter), it takes on ideas and issues that everyone can relate to. In my opinion, out of all the mock doc*mentaries I have scene, this film has taken the fake reality formula and perfected it.