It's an ironic title: There's not much joy in The Joy Luck Club, and the characters' luck is almost always bad.
The Joy Luck club is not really a club at all, but a mahjong circle comprising four middle-age Chinese women living in San Francisco. The circle's founder, Suyuan, has recently passed away. Her attractive, eager-to-please daughter June is about to take Suyuan's place at the table. "We are your aunties," reassures Auntie Lindo, who has assumed the role of club spokeswoman in Suyuan's wake. "We will not cheat you."
Maybe not at mahjong, they won't. But the three matrons are not above a little deception when they feel it's called for in the larger game of life. The aunties have located June's long-lost and presumed dead twin sisters in China and have arranged a reunion between Suyuan's Chinese and American offspring. The catch is that the duplicitous old dames didn't have the heart to tell the twins of their mother's death, nor do they deem it wise to inform the reluctant June of this omission until it is too late for her to back out of the reunion.
As it turns out, this benevolent treachery will be the least serious one perpetrated or endured by the ladies of the Joy Luck club. Each woman has borne a heart-wrenching tale of suffering and survival along the journey from the old world to the new; in the course of this movie, nimbly adapted from Amy Tan's novel, all of their tragic tales will get told. Infanticide, suicide, rape, desertion, philandering -- these wise old birds have seen it all.
By comparison, their prosperous, attractive, Americanized daughters have had it pretty easy and don't seem nearly as tough (or as interesting) as their forebears. All this business about immigrants with humble beginnings who came to America and made a better life for their unappreciative children is not what you'd call virgin narrative territory. Nor has the mystical mother-daughter bond gone underexamined by Hollywood. Joy Luck director Wayne Wang visited this very theme himself in 1985's Dim Sum.
The trick here, the quality that makes The Joy Luck Club more than just a loose collection of tear-jerking cliches, is the fresh integration of the Chinese-American experience into a mainstream film. The harshness of pre-revolutionary Chinese life, from which each of the mahjong circle's original members has escaped with emotional scars, has never been more vividly portrayed by a filmmaker working this side of the Pacific. It's as if Wang and screenwriters Tan and Ronald Bass (Rain Man) studied Chinese innovator Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju and found a way to make them palatable for subtitle-hating American audiences. And they did it within the framework of a nonlinear, multi-generational epic that cuts back and forth across continents, families, and time periods without relying upon Asian-American stereotypes. No one runs a Laundromat, karate-chops bad guys, or looks inscrutable while dispensing riddles.
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But Middle-American stereotypes are another story -- the shrill daughters, the wimpy, bourgeois husbands (Andrew McCarthy is one of them; 'nuff said), their predictably unsatisfying marriages. Take away the four mothers' experiences in China and you've got a big-screen All My Children, only better acted and photograped.
The Joy Luck Club is the biggest duct-drainer of the year, an unrepentant weep-fest. Kleenex couldn't have imagined a more effective sales tool than this film's manipulative bathos. The movie tells eight basic stories, each mother's and daughter's, and every damn one of them has at least one moment designed to test your sniffle quotient. The term "women's movie," a label this newspaper is way too hip to apply, has been bandied about in other publications' analyses of the film. As politically incorrect as it may seem, there's really no other phrase to use for this matrilineal epic.
Even so, you have to feel good for Wang, whose first feature film, Chan is Missing, was shot in 16mm black and white, and cost $22,000 to make. Even with Tan and Bass committed to writing the screenplay, conventional Tinsel Town wisdom held that Tan's episodic novel would not translate well to the big screen. If not for the intervention of executive producer Oliver Stone, the film might never have been made. That a committed, talented young director was able to bring his vision to life is one of The Joy Luck Club's accomplishments. It was no mean feat, either, that he was able to elicit such outstanding performances from an unheralded cast and to mount such a handsome, sure-handed production virtually devoid of non-Chinese talent. It's almost enough to let him off the hook for the blatant appeal to the tear glands. Almost.