Wayne Wang’s fine adaptation of Amy Tan’s best-selling “The Joy Luck Club” will no doubt mark a breakthrough for films about Asians in America. Beautifully made and acted and emotionally moving in the bargain, this dramatic study of trying relationships between Chinese mother and daughters through the century will be widely accessible to all viewers, although women will certainly comprise the base audience. A surprising entry from Hollywood Pictures, via Oliver Stone’s company, this lovely production should generate strong support in many quarters and perform well through the fall. Pic received its world preem over the weekend at the Telluride Film Festival.
Conventional Hollywood wisdom offered many excuses why Tan’s novel, the No. 1 fiction bestseller of 1989, would not make a viable film: It centered on Asian women, the names and faces would be confusing, too many stories jumping around in time, and much of the dialogue would need to be in Chinese.
Quite impressively, screenwriters Tan and Ronald Bass and director Wang have solved all these potential problems in a very lucid explication of the major tales related in the book. Even more important from a commercial p.o.v., they have retained, and perhaps even magnified, the universal emotional qualities of the material, making this story of innumerable hardships and sacrifices one that the mainstream general public will likely embrace.
The central occasion of a festive farewell party for June, one of the daughters, on the eve of her departure for China, is skillfully used like the hub of a wheel, with the individual stories its spokes. As flashbacks illustrate the events, June relates how her late mother left two babies behind during her flight from her war-torn country. She adds background about their own estrangement, which introduces one of the central themes of maternal expectations for and disappointment in daughters.
Attention turns to one of June’s mahjong-playing “aunties,” Lindo, who tells of how she was sold into marriage by her mother at 15, and how she and her daughter Waverly endured many rocky years before a touching reconciliation.
Another older woman, Ying Ying, had a son by a playboy husband in China and endured events so tragic that her American daughter Lena remains hounded by her mother’s depression.
And young Rose, whose marriage to a white American has come unglued, reveals the devastating saga of her mother An Mei, who was one of several wives to a rich man in China and sacrificed herself so that her daughter might acquire strength.
Tying things together is June’s climactic trip to China, her ultimate reunion with her lost sisters will leave many teary-eyed at the powerful, if sentimental , fadeout.
After years of ups and downs as an independent filmmaker, Wang has made a dramatically confident move into the mainstream on his own terms with highly congenial material. The focus remains as intimate as in his previous work, but the emotions and concerns are much bigger.
Visually, the film is splendid, with Amir Mokri’s luminous lensing, Donald Graham Burt’s production design and Lydia Tanji’s costumes fusing into a rich look that is not overly self-conscious. Thesping from the vast cast is top-notch.
Quibbles might relate to slight pacing problems at times, a bit of a sag around the two-hour mark and, most of all, the similarity of some of the stories , which makes the lives of these women seem surprisingly uniform. But the film contributes a strong and exceedingly rare view of a different cultural experience to the American screen, and in a way that will reach a wide public.