The Joy Luck Club," the new film based on the bestselling novel by Amy Tan, is a stirring film that celebrates the mother-daughter bond, and is a rarity among American films for its almost exclusively Asian cast. So why, then, after seeing this beautiful and emotionally potent film, did I feel so ashamed for being an Asian-American?
The story goes something like this. Four pairs of mothers and daughters come to terms with one another after recalling defining moments in their relationships. Among other things, the daughters recount the difficulties of growing up in Asian-American families: the pressure to succeed, the endless pursuit of parental acceptance, the identity crisis. Through all of this, the mothers seem distant, almost uncaring.
The mothers, for their part, are mystified by their daughters' seemingly ungrateful attitudes, shaking their heads with regret. What the daughters don't know are the dark secrets of the past that the mothers keep inside, which haunt them in the film in excruciating detail. One by one, the mothers reveal their scars to their daughters, who draw strength from their mothers' catharses and finally realize the full extent of their love. After years of self-doubt, they feel acceptance.
In a story that focuses primarily on eight female characters, it makes sense that the men in the movie would be in supporting roles. But it's hard to watch this film and not leave with at least some bad vibes about Asian males.
While the women in this film are fully fleshed-out characters who are a remarkable improvement over the "exotic Oriental" Cassandra from "Wayne's World," the male characters are merely additions to the long list of negative images of Asian men in our culture.
The one difference here is that one of the men is a twisted Chinese Don Juan who parades his mistresses in front of his wife and calls all women whores. What makes him unique is that he has any sexual presence at all. The other Asian men in this film are caricatures who often have less than a page of lines, and who all have the emotional depth of a tree slug.
First, there's the old piano teacher who's so deaf he applauds one of the daughters' horrific renditions of Mozart. Music geek.
Next is the 15-year-old Pillsbury Dough Boy lookalike, who, on his wedding night, torments his bride with a garden snake and then orders her to sleep on the floor. The twerp is particularly endearing when he tells his mother that his wife won't sleep with him, when in fact he's scared to death when she undresses for him. Mama's boy.
And then there's the bean-counting anal-retentive jerk who insists on splitting all expenses with his wife, even those that are exclusively his. He apparently hates warmth of any kind, since he enjoys nothing more than eating ice cream with the windows wide open, and treats his marriage like a business arrangement.
And I almost forgot the rapist who lives in a mansion with his four wives. Women to him are like baubles, merely another symbol of his wealth.
The Asian men in "The Joy Luck Club," then, are either domineering and misogynist in the worst imaginable way, or they're just clueless and aloof. The fathers are almost a non-presence, which would leave you to think that they had nothing to do with their daughters' upbringing. (Asian fathers care. A lot. Trust me on this--I know from experience.)
This collection is especially pathetic when compared with the two white men in the film, who are strong and virile, and who will do anything for their Asian wives.
Sadly, this is nothing new. Images of Asian men in our culture are, to put it mildly, not exactly positive. We're either laughable little creatures who are the object of derision and mockery, even to the point of being asexual, or we're grotesquely--and thus impossibly--masculine.
The first type consists of effeminates like Charlie Chan or Martin Short's assistant in "Father of the Bride," and, even closer to home, the dorks in your math and science classes who wear corduroys above the ankle.
The second category consists of either Bruce Lee-types who only know how to karate-chop their way through life, or Chinatown gangsters like those in the film, "Year of the Dragon." It seems that without kung-fu or a gun, we are a race of half-men who are an affront to masculinity.
Nowhere is there to be found a positive image of an Asian male apart from Bruce Lee, whose legend was recently revived with the film, "Dragon."
Don't get me wrong; I thought "Dragon" was a great movie, and I've seen every Bruce Lee film at least three times. But why is it that he is the only thing close to being an Asian male role model? Why is it that an Asian man cannot be a heroic figure unless he stays within his cultural idiom, especially one so exaggerated as martial arts? Are we never to be seen as anything but strangers from another land, outsiders like Cain the Wanderer from the TV series Kung Fu?
I'm not saying that "The Joy Luck Club" should be boycotted. I don't believe that a movie shouldn't be seen because it slights or offends someone or some group. And by the end of the movie I was sniffling pretty hard along with the rest of the crowded house. I'd have to be an insensitive lout not to feel for these mothers and daughters, played extremely well. But there were larger issues raised, issues I noticed once the pathos had worn off.
I'm not some yellow-power fanatic, either. What I am is an Asian-American male who is tired of being told that he is less than a man or that he enjoys oppressing women. Don't let me stop you from seeing "The Joy Luck Club." Just keep in mind that there are Asians not on the screen who are hurting, too, and who have yet to be told they are accepted.