New York City, Gang-Wei and Siao-Yu, both illegal immigrants; he a student and worker in a fish market; she a seamstress in a sweatshop. Giang-Wei saves money to purchase Siao-Yu a fake American husband, whom she can divorce in five years with citizenship in hand—but the going brokered rate is still too high.
Enter Mario, an aging former radical journalist, debilitated by a gambling additiction that almost cost him his life 15 years ago when his debt to the local mob came due. Now, out of boredom or some pain even more profound, he’s back at the tables, and quickly in debt again—almost an act of willed suicide. But fate brings Giang-Wei to him, and soon he is married to Siao-Yu.
A visit from the INS forces Mario to bring Siao-Yu into his apartment. At first the presence of this shy, quiet young woman both arouses and exasperates the curmudgeonly Mario, but Mario’s unwitting cruelty drives Siao-Yu to the bring of despair. Through their clashes, Siao-Yu soon comes out of her shell, and the two forge an unlikely friendship that Giang-Wei can neither understand nor tolerate.
Then Mario’s wife of thirty years shows up. Rita is an itinerant lounge singer, whose love for Mario is both impossible and yet strangely faithful. The two have never been able to live together, yet over the years, when Rita’s singing brings her into town, they have kept up their relationship. Now Rita holds the cards, throwing Siao-Yu out of the apartment in a fit of rage when she finds her there.
Upon discovering Mario’s bigamy, Giang-Wei drags Siao-Yu back to Mario’s apartment and attacks him. Meanwhile Rita has a change of heart—realizing that her 30-year marriage was simply a romantic illusion, she leaves. Mario, with Siao-Yu at his side, dies from the mortal blow he received from Giang-Wei, as well as from his final realizations that his love for Rita never truly amounted to anything.
Before his death, Mario urges Siao-Yu to forgive Giang-Wei even if she, like Rita, will never be able to forgive the man she loves. When Giang-Wei arrives at the door of the apartment, he doesn’t know that Mario has died. He tells Siao-Yu that she must choose between Mario and him once and for all. She tells him that she chooses to stay—she has chosen a painful independence over the bonds of love.