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‘The Joy Luck Club’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 24, 1993

The syrupy light pouring down on Wayne Wang's "The Joy Luck Club" is so luxurious that even the lowliest peasant looks model-chic.

Based on Amy Tan's sprawling tale of loss and perseverance among a small group of immigrant Chinese women and their American-born daughters, it is the latest in multicultural haute couture. Never has political correctness looked so sumptuously handsome as it does here, and in its perfect-pitch instinct for the cultural vibe, this sweeping movie is so immaculately dead-on that it nearly transcends criticism.

With its art house veneer, the movie plays like a highbrow variation on the old Hollywood theme of martyred mothers and their unworthy daughters. It's what you'd get if, say, David Lean had directed "Mildred Pierce" or "Stella Dallas." Crossing ethnic lines, time lines and generational lines, it is a weepie epic.

Set in present-day San Francisco, "The Joy Luck Club" focuses on a group of four elegant, late-middle-aged Chinese women who, since arriving in America just after World War II, have gathered together once a week to play mah-jongg. The philosophy behind this gathering of survivors was to celebrate the passing of each week as if it were a New Year; to eat and laugh and tell their best stories in an attempt to restore their spirits and resist the grip of poverty and hardship. At the beginning of the movie, June (Ming-Na Wen) -- who acts as the first of many guides through the landscape of each woman's life -- has been asked to fill a seat at the table, the seat traditionally occupied by her recently deceased mother, Suyuan (Kieu Chinh). Through the daughter we learn about the mother; we learn about her travails, about the war and the babies she left behind and her attempts to create a new life in America.

Like June and Suyuan, each of the women -- and the family she represents -- has her own private saga to recount. And Wang moves briskly and efficiently from one storyteller to another. In structure and technique, the film is a marvel. Out of this chorus of different singers, Wang (working from an adaptation by Tan and Ronald Bass) creates a single melody. In it he shows the tensions between generations: the daughters who can never please their mothers, and the mothers themselves, who feel inadequate or guilty or who hurt their daughters by projecting onto them their own dreams for a better life.

Just as each path is crossed with tragedy, each of these individual stories in itself fits neatly with the next one and the one before it. And there is an artful symmetry in the way Wang has balanced the various narratives. Unfortunately, as pleasing as these carefully proportioned vignettes are on their own, together they have a kind of sameness. Though the surface details may differ, when stripped down to their essence, they all pretty much make the same point.

In each family group there are jealousies, secrets, buried pain and unexpressed resentments. Through assimilation, the daughters have abandoned the traditions of their Chinese mothers. And though set in more comfortable surroundings, the lives of the daughters mirror those of their parents. And if the rhyming seems forced and a trifle glib, it's because it is.

Because Tan's canvas is so vast and detailed, Wang takes shortcuts in boiling it down, and in the process he has exposed flaws that were not quite so prominent in the original. For example, the women often come across as noble, self-sacrificing victims instead of courageous and resilient survivors. Listening to their tales of woe, you feel that they are all blameless; that their suffering was imposed from without -- usually at the hands of men. Even if one of the mothers kills her baby, she can take comfort in the fact that she was driven to this extreme by a brutal, philandering husband.

It is in this way that the events of the film all too often appear contrived to fit the pattern of feminist ideology. The film is weakest, as a result, in the places where this agenda reveals itself. This is especially true of the performances, which are compromised in their eagerness to present Asian American women in a positive light. It might have been nice if just once a character deserved the heartache she endured -- in other words, if she were marked with some trace of unredeeming humanity.

"The Joy Luck Club" presents itself as a serious look into the lives of these women, and certainly it has the appearance of profundity. True, there are too few films focusing on women's lives, and almost none about Asian Americans, and, yes, "The Joy Luck Club" helps to correct that imbalance. But the conclusions of the film -- its perceptions about the real lives of people -- are perhaps less profound than the filmmakers would have us believe. It's ravishing to look it, a truly gorgeous object. But it is not deep.

Copyright The Washington Post

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