Caught in the crosswinds of East and West, “Pavilion of Women” fails to stir the emotions despite its heavily melodramatic drive. Adaptation of a Pearl S. Buck novel presents a visually poetic palette care of vet Hong Kong helmer Yim Ho with a tin ear for dialogue and a stolid dramatic sensibility that comes alive far too late. In many ways, this is the East Asian equivalent of the old Euro-pudding productions, where international players have created something that’s more cacophonous than melodious. Auds hoping for another fix of what they experienced with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” will be seriously let down, and pic’s eventual B.O. will be closer to that of a foreign language import than a serious, big-scale English-lingo adult drama.
Pic’s title and literary source hardly register on the popular consciousness due to the long-fallen star of Buck, who was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Novelist, now best known for “The Good Earth,” achieved fame as the first Western writer to explore the complex webs of class and gender in Chinese society. After hitting the bestseller charts in 1946, “Pavilion,” about a rebellious Chinese woman prior to the Japanese invasion in the late ’30s, attracted Otto Preminger, whose pitch to Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck fell on deaf ears.
Property hung in limbo until Chinese star Luo Yan (“The Girl in Red”) managed to steer it into production, with herself as producer, star and co-writer. The sense that this is something of a vanity project is sealed with yet another Luo credit, for “additional directing.” It’s clear early on why Luo’s perf (in non-native English) is so flat, even inert: Since she was the boss, there was nobody around to tell her that it wasn’t working.
Starting with the first scenes, in which Luo’s wealthy Madame Wu announces to her lordly yet immature husband, Mr. Wu (Shek Sau), that she is going to give him a concubine and, now that she’s 40, explore her own personal pursuits, the film is already at battle with itself. Visually capturing Buck’s detailed description of upper-class life in Jiang Su province, Yim’s camera moves with some of the grace that Bertolucci brought to his Forbidden City sequences in “The Last Emperor,” but every time we feel ready to get lost in the period, someone opens his mouth with wooden dialogue and false-sounding delivery that ruins the mood.
Wu’s confidant Madame Kang (Amy Hill) nearly dies in childbirth, but she’s saved by handsome American missionary Andre (Willem Dafoe), a cultural taboo-breaker who attracts Wu’s eye. Wu decides on a near-starving peasant girl, Chiuming (Yi Ding), as her husband’s new bedmate. At the same time, she wants her youngest son, Fengmo (John Cho), to be a pupil of Andre’s Western-oriented teaching.
Andre offers both mother and son some lessons of the world, but the tiresomely repeated onscreen warnings for her to stop consorting with the big, bad “foreigner” hardly make Wu the equivalent of one of Henrik Ibsen’s tragic heroines. Rather, conflicts tend to rise from others, such as Fengmo, who’s attracted to both the Communist Party and Chiuming.
Pic works up occasional irony and depth, as when editing leads us to expect that the matriarch of Wu’s house, Old Lady (Anita Loo), is about to verbally punish her daughter-in-law, when it’s actually her son, Mr. Wu, who’s the object of her wrath. A scene in which electric lights are intro’d to the locals is amusing in part, but, like so many individual scenes, much too long.
“Pavilion of Women” at last provides a glimpse of the film it could have been in a gripping and charged finale during the Japanese invasion and Andre’s last, desperate act of heroism. Even this moving set piece is undermined by second-rate digital effects work depicting the Nippon air force, and an epilogue plays like a silly scene from a socialist-realist opera approved by Chairman Mao.
The crucial chemistry between Luo and Dafoe never develops. The fault is all Luo’s and not Dafoe’s, who once again proves that he is up for any challenge in any era. While Luo’s Wu remains an enigma to the end, Dafoe’s Andre — greatly expanded from the novel — trumps the poor dialogue to create a truly enlightened, sympathetic Christian. The Asian-American thesps such as Cho, Hill and Loo are far more at ease than their Chinese colleagues, though Yi’s peasant girl is a genuine portrait in sadness.
Production utilizes rarely seen Chinese mainland locales for maximum cinematic effect on a reported $5 million budget. Poon Hang Sang’s saturated color lensing is highly sensuous, but Conrad Pope’s score is as bombastic as its obvious Carl Orff influence.