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The Joy Luck Club Movie Review

Movie Review by Michelle Shen © Copyright 2002

The Joy Luck Club box art

"The Joy Luck Club", adapted for the screen from Amy Tan's 1989 best-selling novel, was an unrelenting assault on my tear ducts as it gently made its way into my heart. A 'guaranteed-to-make-you-cry' movie, this is definitely the type where you are advised not to wear heavy mascara, or to at least use a waterproof one. The story is about four no-joy no-luck women (Suyuan, Lindo, Ying Ying, and An Mei) who grew up in war-torn China during the early 20th-century, where life was cheap and women had no place in society. These four Chinese women finally made to the America and carried over their hopes and expectations for their American-born daughters (June, Waverly, Lena, and Rose, respectively), whose experiences naturally coincide with that of their mothers, all of which are revealed in poignant detail. To tell their stories, the movie is cleverly structured with scenes that shuttle effortlessly between the past and present, smoothly telling its tale without any loss of clarity.

The pitiful experiences of the four mothers are so typical in a Chinese cultural context that almost every woman from their generation can identify with at least one of them. To abandon one's children is probably the last thing a mother would do, yet in "The Joy Luck Club", convinced she was about to die, Suyuan did just that with the hope her twin daughters' would be protected from her bad luck. An even more tragic decision is made when An Mei's mother kills herself to win An Mei the position of first-wife's daughter in a polygamous family.

Unfortunately, the torturous realities in feudal China prevented a mother's sacrifice from being anything but tragic. A woman's fate in society was doomed to from the start due to their illiteracy and lack of self-identity-- words like "I am your husband and your master" are commonplace in the movie. Ying Ying, who learned about her husband's cheating ways on her wedding day, preferred to swallow the sorrow and tolerate her husband's betrayal-- that is, until she finally collapsed into desperation and drowned her own son.

However, as "The Joy Luck Club" illustrates, a woman's lack of ego in a relationship and the constant fawning of her husband to win his love is not merely limited to a feudal society. In the present, An Mei's daughter Rose, who was brought up amidst American customs and culture, almost fails in her marriage as she tries to please her husband by offering her 'selfless' and 'supportive' love. She even considers her husband's love to her more valuable than hers to him, appropriately demonstrated in how she makes a peanut butter chocolate cake (her husband's favorite, but not hers) for a meeting to finalize their divorce. She knows that he will likely eat only one slice, and is unsure as to how she is going to deal with the rest once he has gone.

Most mothers will transfer their dreams to their children especially those who are not able to achieve themselves. The way Suyuan forced her daughter June to practice the piano, or how Lindo brags about her daughter Waverly's chess championships reminded me of my mom. Everyone that was born in 60s to 70s will have no difficulty in seeing their own childhood from the movie. And though the four daughters' situations end up being no better than those of the previous generation, their mothers are on hand to help guide their way to either winning back their own self-esteem and dignity, or giving them the strength to walk out of an unpleasant or abusive relationship-- things that the mothers were denied in their own youth. This is why I consider the movie a successful one, as it offers the hope that even the greatest joy can be wrung from the deepest tragedies.

It is fascinating and satisfying the way the movie weaves so many sophisticated plot threads simultaneously into a single tapestry. However, it is also apparent that a lot more could have been told, and we are left wondering about all that we didn't get to see. Questions like how the four women suddenly all managed to make it to America, or how they ended up in a middle- to high-class lifestyle in the present (completely opposite to their backgrounds in China) are not explained, which does taint the story's silver lining with a somewhat arbitrary outcome. In addition, although the memorable characters are the real strength of "The Joy Luck Club", some of the acting tends to be more melodramatic than dramatic, and the dialogue often sounds too poetic to be grounded in reality.

A lot of bad things happen during the course of "The Joy Luck Club", however, in the end, true to the title, all the tears eventually turn into 'joy' and 'luck'. Having watched this wondrous movie, the only regret is that if I had known that there was a movie with such a clear understanding of the relationships between mothers and their daughters, I would have watched "The Joy Luck Club" a long, long time ago.

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Images courtesy of Hollywood Pictures. All rights reserved.

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