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‘The Joy Luck Club’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 24, 1993

You may think you're being pulled into a different world in "The Joy Luck Club." But this saga about Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters is really your story. An interwoven narrative stretching over 30 years, it traces the painful, old-world pasts of four Chinese women and the way they pour their anguish into the innocent mouths of their children. The movie, adapted faithfully from Amy Tan's popular novel, gives refreshing -- and bittersweet -- dimension to the age-old clash between generations.

"Joy Luck" starts at a home in San Francisco, the scene of a weekly mah-jongg game among four mothers, Suyuan (Kieu Chinh), Lindo (Tsai Chin), An Mei (Lisa Lu) and Ying Ying (France Nuyen). Now that Suyuan has passed away, her daughter June (Ming-Na Wen) is obliged to fill in. The change of guard provokes the survivors to reflect on their lives in China, and their more recent memories with their grown-up children.

The multiple plots unfold in a series of flashbacks and narration. Mothers and daughters are shown at different stages in their lives, the movie flitting constantly between past and present, and between China and San Francisco.

June, for instance, is seen in her present adolescence and at age 9 (played by another actress). An Mei, who has a tragic past of separation from and reunion with her mother (Vivian Wu), is seen at her present age, at 4 and at 9. And so on.

From this almost-surrealistic collage of faces and stories, universalities emerge. The old-world memories show the tyranny of arranged marriages, cruelty towards women (by women as much as by men) and the steady battering of self esteem. But the tribulations the women undergo have little bearing on their culturally different offspring. The mothers feel unappreciated, forgotten, unrespected and cheated of something.

"I was taught to desire nothing," An Mei tells her daughter. "Swallow other people's misery and eat my own bitterness."

Both sides of the generational divide are equally unreasonable, victimized and at fault, yet convinced of their moral right. The children, who have grown up in the United States, see their mothers as callous and unbending.

"You don't know the power you have over me," an emotional Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita) confesses to her passive-aggressive mother, Lindo. "One word, one look . . . Nothing I can do can ever please you."

Director Wayne Wang is not a streamlined, cut-to-the-quick kind of director. His style is respectful, if not plodding. He's pointed helpfully in the right direction by a sturdy -- if overly deliberate -- framework created by screenwriter Ronald Bass and Tan. In a drama of multiple plot lines, the movie makes clear and vivid sense. And, in addition to its storytelling wealth, "Joy Luck Club" is nourishing for its avoidance of Asian stereotypes. There isn't the slightest trace of a laundry man, kung fu killer or aphorism-spouting, pidgin-English-speaking detective. This mah-jongg epic is far too busy with original human entanglements to pay attention to such tired figures of Hollywood yesteryear.

Copyright The Washington Post

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