Amy Tan burst onto the literary scene with her 1989 novel, The Joy Luck Club, which tells the story of four Chinese immigrants whose 30-year tradition of friendship and mahjong is interrupted when one of them dies. But when the departed woman’s best friends ask her adult daughter, June, to take her seat at the gaming table, it’s the start of a breakthrough in mother-daughter relations (and revelations) for all of them.
We learn that none of the women has had an easy relationship raising her daughter in the U.S., which, we come to learn through a succession of long flashbacks, can be traced to the difficult and sometimes mysterious relationships that they had with their own mothers back in pre-WWII China.
The novel unfolds slowly and leisurely, and director Wayne Wang allows the women to have their say in equally unrushed segments. But at 135 minutes this 1993 drama begins to feel overlong in the third act, no doubt because the women’s stories all illustrate the same thing: the older women had a hard time in China, in part, because of their gender, and their greatest hope for their daughters is for them to achieve the self-respect and assertiveness that they found it impossible to have for themselves in a culture that valued and invested all power in males, only.
That focus on females and Wang’s willingness to let the scenes have their emotional power and not hurry past them will make “The Joy Luck Club” feel to some like what is derogatorily called “a chick flick.” June (Ming-Na Wen) provides the voiceover narration for the overall story, but each woman who tells a story within this story finds her own voice, her own way of saying what has been, for some of them, unspeakable.
There’s a lot of turn taking in the novel and in the film, which can drive some viewers to distraction. When we get young adult June’s flashback narrative about her mother’s expectations for her that she could never live up to—playing the piano, for example, when she didn’t have the natural ability—we’re transported into the past where young actresses take over and we see June’s exasperation in going head-to-head with her mother over lessons and practice. Then we get the story of young adult Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita), a legitimate chess prodigy who still comes to blows with her mother because she’s tired of being used as a weapon, of being paraded across town like a trophy. “You learn to play chess, you do it yourself,” she basically tells her mother. The gap widens when she begins dating a Caucasian. The other two stories follow, with Lena (Lauren Tom) marrying a controlling Asian man and Rose (Rosalyn Chao) marrying a wealthy Caucasian whose work seems to come first; then the mothers get their chance.
One of them (Lisa Lu as An-Mei, Rose’s daughter) lost her husband and was raped by a wealthy man who had three wives and numerous other concubines. She had no choice but to plead to be taken in as his fourth wife. Another (Kieu Chihn as Suyuan, June’s mother) on a long and grueling refugee evacuation found it necessary to abandon the things that were most precious to her. A third (Tsai-Chin as Lindo, Waverly’s mother) was left by her mother to a wealthy old woman who “gave” her to her 10-year-old son for a bride, then berated her for not producing grandsons for her. The fourth (France Nuyen as Ying-Ying, Lena’s mother) thought she married for love but realized that she married a cruel womanizer who would treat her like the whores he brought home.
So really, “The Joy Luck Club” is eight stories told at different times about different eras. The acting is solid, and the cinematography—especially in the flashback scenes—is accomplished. The stories may be different, but they really all illustrate the same thing: life in China for women is about like life in India for a woman, or in so many other Third World countries.
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is beautiful, with no evidence of banding or crush. Colors are rich-looking and detail is well-defined, even in low-lit scenes. Strong black levels help to hold detail in shadows as well. There’s a thin layer of filmic grain, and that gives “The Joy Luck Club” an appropriately aged look for the flashback scenes, especially. “The Joy Luck Club” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, which is more assertive and distributes more ambient sound across the channels than I would have expected. Even at a dinner party that’s the send-off for June, every clack and clang and snippet of dialogue that you’d hear at a gathering like this is brought to sonic life. Additional audio options are French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.
Sorry Amy Tan or Wayne Wang fans—no bonus features.
If you can get past the repetitive message, the pacing, the length, and the occasional melodrama, “The Joy Luck Club” rewards on two levels: as a look at Asian-American and Asian culture, and as a consideration of the dynamics that shape mother-daughter relationships in any culture—or father-son relationships, for that matter.