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'Pavilion': Mired in Melodrama

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 4, 2001


    'Pavilion of Women' Willem Dafoe in "Pavilion of Women."
(Rafael Winer/Universal)
Asian cinema is no longer a hidden dragon. This weekend in D.C. theaters you can sample an arty minimalist romance from Hong Kong, "In the Mood for Love"; a complex family saga from Taiwan, "Yi Yi (A One and a Two)"; a pensive psychological drama from Japan, "Eureka"; and a film by Hong Kong action master Tsui Hark, "Time and Tide." Or you can see "Pavilion of Women," a film that was made in China but has the soul of a '50s Hollywood melodrama.

To its credit, "Pavilion of Women" doesn't look as if it was made on a Hollywood backlot. Shot in various architectural heritage areas – including Zhou Zhuang, China's equivalent of Venice – the film makes skillful use of eminently photogenic locations. Indeed, the pavilions, canals and drawing rooms where we first glimpse Madame Wu (star, producer and co-writer Luo Yan) seem so timeless that a verbal cue is required to establish the period. Finally, someone mentions that the Japanese have occupied Manchuria, meaning it's the 1930s.

Unfortunately, further talk is necessary to tell the story. Director Yim Ho's fluid camera movements and cinematographer Poon Hang-Sang's warm light are beguiling, but the spell is broken as soon as people start speaking. As if to reassure American viewers that the film is not in Chinese, a babble of English remarks begins almost immediately: "Would somebody please move this table?" calls an unseen coolie in a squeaky, vaudevillian voice. The line's delivery is so goofy that you half expect that the speaker will be revealed as Kermit the Frog, turning the corner in a rickshaw pulled by Fozzy Bear.

The dialogue doesn't get any better when the principal characters begin uttering their lines. "Women! Never trust a woman," exclaims wealthy, peevish Lord Wu (Shek Sau) as he waits for his wife to appear at her 40th birthday party. Later, when American missionary Father Andre (Willem Dafoe) expresses his more enlightened Western view, the language is just as stilted: "A book doesn't know if a man or a woman is reading it," the missionary tells the well-read Madame Wu, thus awakening the married woman's passions for him.

No, this isn't a Chinese rewrite of the "The Thorn Birds." It's an adaptation of a novel by China-bred American novelist Pearl S. Buck, whose reputation began to recede almost as soon as she won the 1938 Nobel Prize for literature. Luo and Paul R. Collins's script only emphasizes the quaintness of Buck's scenario, and the dialogue makes even the simplest developments sound contrived. The actress, a star in China before coming to the United States in 1986, has conquered her Chinese accent, but she and her collaborator demonstrate no understanding of vernacular English conversation.

The plot contrasts two unconsummated adulterous affairs. At 40, Madame Wu decides she's had enough of her husband's sexual demands, so she recruits a new second wife. Teenage peasant Chiuming (Yi Ding) is beautiful but otherwise unsatisfactory. She knows so little about massage and other, uh, arts that Lord Wu soon abandons her to become a regular at the local brothel. The Wu clan's liberal-minded 18-year-old son, Fengmo (John Cho), feels sympathy – and more – for Chiuming, putting him in the awkward position of flirting with his new "second mother." Meanwhile, Madame Wu finds herself strongly drawn to Andre, who's not too busy running his orphanage to contemplate breaking his vow of celibacy. Things could get quite messy if the Japanese don't start bombing soon.

They do, sending Fengmo to join the Communist forces and Andre – well, let's just say this Dafoe role is less along the lines of "Shadow of the Vampire" than "Platoon" and "The Last Temptation of Christ." Conrad Pope's overweening score is trendily multi-culti, and the movie's final scenes of rape and slaughter are far more explicit than they would have been back in 1937, when Hollywood brought Buck's "The Good Earth" to the screen. In almost every other way, though, "Pavilion of Women" is an instant antique.

"Pavilion of Women" (R, 115 minutes) – Contains sexuality and war images.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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