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'Pavilion of Women': Buck Stumbles Here

By Rita Kempley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 4, 2001


    'Pavilion of Women' Willem Dafoe in "Pavilion of Women."
(Rafael Winer/Universal)
"Pavilion of Women," a wan cross-cultural romance set in1938 China, is as bland as a fortune cookie and as trite as the message inside. Ironically, this snoozy drama was born of Chinese actress Luo Yan's passion for Pearl S. Buck's novel of spiritual and sexual awakening.

The movie follows the fortunes of the Wu clan, a well-regarded and wealthy family shaken by the intrusions of the modern world. Among them is the arrival of Father Andre (Willem Dafoe), an American doctor who defies masculine tradition by delivering a baby -- the mother's life is at stake. Of course, she would rather die.

The doctor's good deed is more shocking to the insular community than the Japanese invasion to the north or the struggle between the Communist and Nationalist Chinese. But Madame Wu (Luo Yan, also the producer and cowriter) delivers an even bigger jolt at her 40th birthday party that evening.

Though wives barely tolerate their mates' polygamous impulses, the heroine announces that she has purchased a surprise gift for her husband -- Chiuming (Yi Ding), a pretty young peasant who will serve as his concubine. "He deserves someone younger," she explains to the guests, who can't imagine why she would do this. But she's relieved: Now Chiuming must service the callous, sexually demanding Mr. Wu (clownishly overplayed by Shek Sau).

Madame Wu subsequently hires Father Andre to tutor her son Fengmo (John Cho), ostensibly to ready the young man for his upcoming arranged marriage. Drawn to both the teacher and the lessons, she soon joins in the classes, with Chiuming in tow. Sparks are in the air. Father Andre demonstrates electricity -- unfortunately it, too, is static -- to the three pupils, and you could be one chopstick short of a set and still have no doubt about what's going to happen next.

"Pavilion of Women," directed by Hong Kong's Yim Ho, suggests a sudsy version of "The King and I" without forceful personalities or fancy production numbers. Of course, that wouldn't much matter if there were great chemistry between Dafoe, apparently striving for sainthood -- except for the celibacy thing -- and Luo Yan, who's as serene as a moonbeam. How's that for hot and spicy?

Pavilion of Women (117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexuality and war images.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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