It doesn't really work on cuts of meat common in the west and is dropping from favor.
First off, there's no real penetration of flavor beyond the outer 1/4 inch. Secondly, the acid tended to make the meat mushy and the oil didn't offer much most of the time.
These marinades have fallen from favor in the west, and rightly so. However, with the thinly sliced meats of many asian cuisines, this sort of marinade for the shorter times still has some value. Or if you're cooking thin cutlets or paillards, don't discard the standard marinade technique either.
Of interest though is the rise of salt, glutamate and nucleotide marination. Salt and glutamates can penetrate deeply in meat in common marination times. Cook's Illustrated, particularly in their PBS shows America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country have pushed this sort of marinade into the public eye.
Glutamate combined with nucleotides offer a boosted savoriness to a dish. The common example is Caesar Salad with glutamate from the Parmesan cheese and nucleotides from the anchovies.
What does any of this mean for Asian marinades.
Soy sauce is salty of course, but also a good source of glutamates. The rice wine, is acidic as well as offering it's own flavors. Wikipedia offers a good list for common foods high in glutamate. Scroll down to the section on Concentration in Foods.
Salt penetrates into the meat. Depending on the length of time and concentration, salt can denature protein and help retain moisture as seen in the popularity of brining, or the recommendation of Kosher poultry, which has been salted as part of the Kosher butchering. This last part doesn't really apply to marinades in general, but I do sometimes wonder about it Asian food where the meat is so thin. In the first link below, Jack Bishop indicates it does, but that seems fast compared to the effect in brining so I still wonder.
Fish sauce offers nucleotides. Also other meaty products that often show up in the completed dish such as mushroom, mushroom based condiments, and stock are more sources of nucleotides.
It seems that the Asians had stumbled into this combination of flavors intuitively.
Worth reading for more information:
- NPR interview with America's Test Kitchen
- Culinary Guild interview with a Test Kitchen employee, particularly the last third or so
- IFT article on umami
- CJBIO actually about nucleotides as a food additive, but still interesting and with some good information
- Principles of Food Chemistry via Google Books the section titled Flavor Enhancers