Mother Knows Best

The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club

directed by Wayne Wang

Hollywood Pictures

The Joy Luck Club," based on Amy Tan's novel, works like a photo album, presenting to the audience brief glimpses of the remarkable lives of four Chinese American women and their grown-up daughters. But it is not organized chronologically. Instead, each scene pivots on the emotional significance of the preceding one.

The form works because our memories do replay moments from our pasts like a film; rarely do they occur to us in sequential order. Director Wayne Wang weaves the nonlinear script together exquisitely, and we recognize the influence of producer Oliver Stone in sweeping shots of landscape and lavish depictions of the costumes of upper-class, old-world China.


The pretext that holds the collection of memories together is a party, shortly following the death of one of the mothers, Suyuan Woo (Kieu Chinh). The seven surviving women and their families gather to celebrate the departure of Suyuan's daughter, June (Ming-Na Wen), for China, where she will seek out two long-lost sisters, previously thought to be dead. In "The Joy Luck Club," the daughters must look back to and acknowledge their mothers' experiences in China in order to sort out their own lives. June's impending journey is physical enactment of this.

The vignettes, past and present, recount the trials the characters endure to emerge with a new sense of self-respect. The mothers' have achieved dignity by surmounting the oppressive conditions in China in the earlier half of this century: arranged marriage, polygamy and war. They have triumphed over these hardships through cunning and bravery, but for their daughters, the path is less clear. The youngwomen's problems are not so black-and-white; noris fleeing to another country an option.

We see two of the daughters, Lena (Lauren Tom)and Rose (Rosalind Chao), emotionally defeated bytheir American lives: They are afraid to speak,dependent and thus powerless. Their mothers aredisappointed at such weakness, remembering theirown unabashed acts of bravery in the face ofadversity. The imagery accompanying the tales ofLena and her mother Ying Ying (France Nuyen) isparticularly suggestive, contrasting theoverabundance of passion in the mother's past,with the daughter's current emotional void. In aflashback filled with thunder and lightening, YingYing recalls a fight with her unfaithful husband.

Years later, she arrives at Lena's ultramodernhome, and finds it to be as gloomy, spare andlifeless as her marriage; her husband treats hermore like a business partner than a wife. The onlysounds of protest come from a screaming teakettle. Ying Ying finally resorts to shattering avase of irises to fill the house with sound andupset its orderliness. As the fragile flowers lieon the floor, Ying Ying berates her daughter: "Areyou happy?"

Communication often takes theatrical forms likethis in the film, for the mother-daughtergeneration gap is exaggerated by culturaldifference. When Lindo (Tsai Chin) visits herdaughter's apartment, she chooses not to noticethat Waverly is living with her white boyfriend.Exasperated, Waverly throws open drawers andclosets and presents her mother with ties, boxersand suspenders.

As one might guess, men play only supportingroles in "The Joy Luck Club." June's father, whodoes not appear until the end, speaks only as amessenger from her dead mother, and Waverly'slover's underwear has about as much screen time ashe does. The male characters are invariablyone-dimensional, each sustaining about one traitmeant to bring out the heroines' strengths bycontrast.

But this is no feminist treatise. It's a bigOliver Stone blockbuster hellbent on reducing itsaudience to tears. The soundtrack soars (well, theJanus theater had a few problems with it, but itwould have soared...) as characters cry, hug orglow with confidence. My only qualm with "The JoyLuck Club" was a moment of silence near the end.The entire audience could be heard snifflingduring this brief break, and I couldn't help butthink that Wang and Stone had engineered it justso that we could all report to our friends,"Everybody must see it."

Everybody cried. You must see it.And the Ladies of the Club.

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