Quietly talky yet evocative stories unfold in 'Joy Luck Club'

October 01, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Joy Luck Club" may be the first big-screen, multimillion-dollar movie that's primarily about voices.

Less than a single, coherent drama, it's an evocation of two generations of Chinese-American women, four immigrant mothers and four American daughters, who struggle to comprehend their roles in their old culture and their new one over the course of tumultuous and changing times. They address these dilemmas in nothing less than oral meditations. It's either the quietest talky movie or the talkiest quiet movie ever made.

Derived from Amy Tan's best-selling novel, the movie is officially "set" at a going-away party for June (Ming-Na Wen) who is returning to China to meet her long-lost sisters in the wake of the recent death of her mother, one of the original four women. The film is constructed almost as an epiphany machine, in which, with the party as the platform of the present, each woman contemplates (and re-creates in flashback) the main events of her life and the forces that created her and the key female relationship, mother to daughter, or, from the daughter's point of view, daughter to mother. The programmatic climax to each tandem of stories (it's almost mathematical in its precision) occurs when at last the mother reaches out to help the daughter.

This makes for a certain abstract quality to the film's surface, almost a serenity. Most of the events are not so much dramatized as evoked and described as each woman tells her story in voice-over narration. It's very much in the post-modernist tradition, with the rigid rules of narrative logic airily discarded, as over and over again, people remember things they were not present for or could not have known. Iconography is crushingly important: a "bad" husband will be instantly recognizeable by his permanent Snidely Whiplash sneer, where a good one will have an open and loving face; but they are never, strictly speaking, characters.

Time, too, is somewhat abstracted. Frequently, one has no idea exactly where in the past one is or where even in geography one is -- the mainland before the Communist takeover, Taiwan, Hong Kong? No answers here, because by Tan's method as abetted by director Wayne Wang, the historical truth is much less important than the emotional one.

Quickly enough, patterns emerge, the primary one being male oppression. Whether locked in an ancient culture in which such oppression is institutionalized (the Chinese initiated foot-binding, remember) or the liberalized American one nominally founded on equality, the women suffer primarily at the hands of men. Yet in each, the mother, wiser and sadder, is able to reach across the gulf of time and culture and assist her daughter to make some key adjustment, some change, that will allow the younger woman a chance at a better life.

The stories vary somewhat in quality. The most obvious and didactic belongs to Ying Ying, the mother (France Nuyen), and Lena (Lauren Tom). In old China, Ying Ying was married to a beast who loved cruelty. His abuse of her is surely some of the most spectacular on record, and included bringing prostitutes into the family house, humiliating her and then marching upstairs for sex. Her response was tragic and traumatic. It haunted her for years.

Her daughter Lena manages, despite being raised as a complete American, to locate her own private hell: a subtly abusive Chinese yuppie who manages to exploit her with a subversive cruelty known as "equality" by obsessively splitting expenses with her and overcharging (and over-controlling) her for everything. It takes mother reaching out of her long melancholy to jar daughter into sending this jerk to where where he truly belongs -- out the door.

Some are irritating: Rosalind Chao, engaged to a rich American (Andrew McCarthy), encounters a consummately phony blast of prejudice from his mother that is so far out of WASP traditions it doesn't exist. Such people may in fact be the most wretched of bigots, but they never simply spill out their fears and hatreds -- they speak in complex, symbolic language, which screenwriter Tan, who adapted her own book with Ronald Bass, just doesn't get.

Ironically, the least compelling of the stories is the over-arching one -- June and Suyuan. It loses some power because it's fragmented: We learn the daughter's version of the mother's story first and 2 1/2 hours later the daughter learns the truth of those events, which were far more complex than she imagined. Yet the setting down and picking up of the story prevents it from paying off quite as powerfully as the filmmakers intended.

In the end, "The Joy Luck Club" is pretty much a woman's no joy, no luck club, though it's never preposterously didactic. I suspect it's one that women will respond to more passionately than men.

"The Joy Luck Club"

Directed by Wayne Wang

Starring Kieu Chinh and Ming-Na Wen

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated PG-13

***

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