A multi-generational tearjerker of the first order, “Jasmine Women” is an impressive showcase for Mainland-born thesps Zhang Ziyi and Joan Chen, in multiple roles as daughters and mothers across three generations. Helming bow of ace d.p. Hou Yong, whose credits include both Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “The Blue Kite” and Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home,” is unsurprisingly a visual feast, if occasionally overstated. Pic (“dedicated to all mothers”) could find an appreciative market with Western arthouse fans of period exotica, especially given Zhang Ziyi’s current high international profile. Solid B.O. across Asian territories looks inevitable.
Pic is divided into three segs. The first (“Grandmother”) opens in Shanghai’s pre-WWII heyday. Starstruck innocent, Mo (Zhang, in full ingenue mode), falls for the slick patter of talent scout “Boss” Meng (Jiang Wen) about becoming a movie star. Though Meng makes good on his promise, he also gets Mo pregnant. Despite her burgeoning career, Mo refuses to have an abortion, moving back home to face recriminations from her mother (Chen) and other more dire consequences.
In the second part (“Mother”), Communist China is in full swing in the late ’50s and the still movie-obsessed Mo (now played by Chen) has to contend with the socialist zeal of her daughter, Li (Zhang). Li’s b.f., Zou Jie (Lu Yi), has troubles with Mo’s bourgeois tastes.
Final section (“Daughter”), set in 1978, introduces Hua (Zhang), the adopted daughter of Li. Hua has been raised under the watchful eye of Mo (now a grandmother, still starstruck, and still played by Chen), but has secretly married a brilliant fellow student, Du (Liu Ye). Not knowing they’re married, Mo attempts to sway Hua from further “romance” with Du.
Despite occasional ham-fisted moments, when Hou and fellow scripter Zhang Xian don’t know when enough is enough, yarn generally hits all the right marks. Most importantly, Hou as a director wisely doesn’t get in the way of his talented distaff leads.
As the three rebellious daughters, Zhang has the showier roles and more than proves (especially after “2046” and “House of Flying Daggers”) that she’s a young actress of considerable range who’s only just beginning to hit her stride. The three roles effectively retrace her career so far, from the innocent in “The Road Home” to the sometimes ferocious characters she’s limned in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Rush Hour 2” and “Hero.”
More surprising, however, is Chen, who re-emerges here as a thesp of considerable talent. Playing each of the mother roles, Chen shows an impressive command of nuance. Supporting perfs from the male thesps, including local superstar-cum-director Jiang as the slick film producer, are also impressive.
Film looks like a picture postcard, with the scenes set in pre-WWII Shanghai particularly impressive for their art direction. Other tech credits are of a similarly high standard. Score by Su Cong and Yin Qing acknowledges the meller roots of the story without unduly stressing its excesses.
Original title, “Molihua kai,” literally means “Jasmine Flowers Bloom.” It’s also a pun on the Chinese names of the women portrayed (Mo, Li, Hua — which combined mean “Jasmine Flowers”).