Thanks to the popularity of actors such as Jackie Chan ("Rush Hour 2"), Jet Li ("Kiss of the Dragon"), Chow Yun-fat ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), and Lucy Liu ("Charlie's Angels"), seeing Asian faces on the silver screen has become almost commonplace these days. However, not too long ago, Asian actors in Hollywood were usually relegated to playing unflattering bit parts, such as gang members, prostitutes, martial arts masters, enemy soldiers, or the 'token oriental'. At that time, crafting a drama with an all-Asian cast (with a Chinese director no less) was almost inconceivable. Yet in 1993, director Wayne Wang (best known for "Smoke" and "Chinese Box") and producer Oliver Stone ("Any Given Sunday") pulled it off by bringing Amy Tan's best-selling novel "The Joy Luck Club" to the big screen. And though the story is deeply entrenched in the Asian-American experience, "The Joy Luck Club" ends up transcending all races and cultures with its heartfelt examination of the special bond between mothers and their daughters.
The 'Joy Luck Club' of the title refers to four women who immigrated from China to the United States long ago: An Mei (Lisa Lu), Ying Ying (France Nuyen), Lindo (Tsai Chin, heard recently in "Titan A.E."), and Suyuan (Kieu Chinh of "Riot in the Streets"). The story is framed by a large get-together of the extended families of the 'Joy Luck Club', although Suyuan has recently passed away. The reason for the celebration is the imminent departure of Suyuan's American-born daughter June (Ming-Na Wen, heard recently in "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"), who is traveling to China to meet two half-sisters she has never met. Also in attendance are Lindo's daughter Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita, who starred in the "Babylon 5" pilot episode), Ying Ying's daughter Lena (Lauren Tom), and An Mei's daughter Rose (Rosalind Chao of "What Dreams May Come").
As the film unfolds, a series of well-orchestrated flashbacks (sixteen in total) tell the stories of the 'Joy Luck Club' and their American-born daughters. Though these two generations grew up in different times and places, the former in a land where women were little more than chattel and the latter in an environment that encouraged personal freedom and the departure from tradition, their struggles have far more in common than not. In addition to telling how June's mother was forced to leave her twin daughters by a roadside in China, the audience gets a glimpse of how Lindo was once married to a ten-year old spoiled brat, the agonizing sacrifice of An Mei's mother (Vivian Wu of "The Last Emperor") to safeguard a better life for her daughter, and Ying Ying's act of vengeance against a philandering husband (Russell Wong of "Romeo Must Die"). All of their experiences in pre-revolutionary China have a direct bearing on the lives of their daughters, who end up re-learning the same agonizing lessons in modern-day America: Lena's broken marriage where activity-based costing runs amuck, the struggles of Waverly and June to please their mothers, and Rose's inability to ascertain her true self-worth.
"The Joy Luck Club" is not an easy film to sit through, as the lives of these women seem to have little joy or luck. However, despite the hardship, it is clear that there is something that the 'Joy Luck Club' has an abundance of: hope of a better life for their daughters. This is the common motivation that underlies all the vignettes, and even though the courageous acts of self-sacrifice are not always overt or well understood by the daughters, they remain powerful testaments to the unbreakable ties between a mother and her child.
Though most of the vignettes are heartbreaking, there are moments of unexpected pleasure, such as how Lindo is able to outsmart her way out of her loveless marriage, the appalling table manners of Waverly's gwei lo fiancé (Christopher Rich), or the comic relief courtesy of June's deaf piano teacher. And even if you are not Chinese or even female, there are plenty of small moments that will resonate with anyone who has ever been a parent or child (which includes just about everyone), such as June's childhood battles with her mother over piano lessons, or how Lindo takes pleasure in bragging about Waverly's prowess in chess.
The only criticism that can be leveled against "The Joy Luck Club" is the wavering quality of the acting and the scripted dialogue. At times, particularly in the scenes that take place in the modern day, the film seems to stumble with pretentious-sounding line delivery and overly flowery conversation. Thankfully, there is an underlying earnestness to the story, and coupled with Wang's skillful direction, these transgressions are forgivable.
Though "The Joy Luck Club" ends in tears, they are not borne out of sadness. Instead, they are tears of joy as the torch of hope and the aspirations of a better life are passed on to a new generation. Likewise, despite the poignant material, "The Joy Luck Club" ends up being an uplifting film. Not only does it honor the sacrifices often made by one generation for the next, but it also offers a glimpse of the sort of connection we would all like to share with our parents.
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