Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mail Order Wife Is Quite the Surprise Package

Mail Order Wife
Written and Directed by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland
Running Time: 92 minutes
Originally Released: March 11, 2005

* * * (out of four)

I don’t suppose anyone knows fully what to expect when they send off for a mail-order bride. Mail Order Wife both plays off of and lives up to that notion. Presented entirely in documentary fashion, the fictitious Mail Order Wife is a surprising, twisted, and surprisingly twisted comedy.

Adrian (Adrian Martinez) believes he has found the perfect woman—or at least, the catalog description makes her sound pretty good, good enough to cough up some dough and start a relationship with her. Adrian has decided to cut to the chase and forgo traditional dating, opting instead for the convenience—and, who are we kidding, the humble servitude—of a mail-order bride. Lichi (Eugenia Yuan) is the bride-to-be in question, a shy and quiet Burmese woman who, after several weeks of written correspondence, finds herself in Queens, New York, standing before a justice of the peace and, with a little help from her interpreter, saying “I do” to Adrian. Andrew (co-writer and co-director Andrew Gurland) is the documentary filmmaker who’s there to capture it all, fronting the courtship and wedding costs in exchange for filming rights. And what a show he’s getting. As soon as the nuptials are over, Adrian has Lichi cleaning the bathroom and making dinner, chanting mantras like “keep stirring, keep stirring” in her ear, just to make sure she gets everything right. As the movie continues, we learn that this is just the tip of the iceberg concerning Adrian’s domineering behavior. Adrian is not just chauvinistic, he is perversely disturbing. Andrew realizes this and the documentary suddenly shifts, focusing on Andrew’s attempted rescue of Lichi. But that’s not the end of the story, either. It turns out Andrew isn’t sure what he wants Lichi to be—a rescue victim, a lover, or a domestic servant of his own.

You may think I’ve told you everything about where this movie takes us. I haven’t. Mail Order Wife is divided into three distinct acts, each of which takes the film in an entirely different direction. There aren’t twists and surprises, exactly, just shifts in direction, and yet those shifts are substantial enough that you’ll spend a good part of the film in a delighted kind of stupor. Like listening to a good friend tell a story that you can’t quite believe, you’ll watch Mail Order Wife with “Really?” constantly echoing in your head. The genius is that Mail Order Wife responds with equal sincerity, “Yes, really,” and you can’t help but believe it. The events unfolding on the screen are just zany enough to ring true, and it has nothing to do with the documentary façade. As the movie illustrates, something both frightening and hilariously absurd about human psychology make this storyline a reality just waiting to happen. People are fickle creatures who are willing to go to great lengths to satisfy their whims. In both respects, Andrew is all over the map.

In my experience, faux documentaries—frequently referred to as “mockumentaries”—crash and burn if they ever feel scripted. On one or two very brief occasions, the characters in Mail Order Wife seem to be acting. Fortunately, those moments pass quickly enough that they don’t sabotage the film as a whole. Instead, Gurland and Martinez turn in by-and-large terrific performances, though it is Yuan who steals the show, particularly in those scenes where Lichi’s feistier side is revealed. (In one exceptionally funny scene, Lichi vehemently defends her decision to spend all of her personal allowance money on pig décor.) Ironically, parts of Mail Order Wife so successfully capture the look and feel of a documentary that they work against the movie’s success. For example, the first 30 minutes of the film, which are some of the most authentic, move especially slowly. And then there are the film’s darker elements. I don’t understand how certain disturbing aspects of the plot could possibly be interpreted as “dark comedy,” but through the lifelike lens of a mockumentary, these elements only prove more unsettling. Bottom line: proceed with caution. If you can make it past the dull and the disturbing, you’re in for a very beguiling treat.


  1. Where are you getting all of these movies that I have never ever heard of?

  2. Hey buddy! Subscribing to Netflix helps, because you can browse movies with ease and because it will recommend movies to you based on how you rate other movies (and genres, etc.). It can be hit-and-miss in terms of recommending something worthwhile, but at least you learn about a lot of stuff you wouldn't otherwise know about. It also helps that Melanie and I watch a lot of independent and foreign films, so those get recommended quite often. Also, those types of movies usually have previews for other movies that nobody's ever heard of, so that helps too.

  3. Still enjoying your reviews! Wish we could watch some of these too... or with you would be even funner! Miss you!

  4. Hey JoAnna. I don't know if you subscribe to Netflix, but even their cheapest subscriptions come with unlimited instant viewing over the computer. (You can even rig it so you can watch it on your TV through certain game consoles, which I'm sure you probably have. You probably need a wireless router, though. Do you have that?) A lot of the movies I've been watching are available for instant viewing, so they're definitely not unobtainable. And, of course, you can always have the DVDs shipped to you instead.