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With Chinese cinema so in vogue, now seems just as good a time as any to make a new movie based on a work by Pearl S. Buck. Buck, the daughter of American missionaries, grew up in China in the early part of the century and witnessed much of the country’s tumultuous transformation from rural backwater to modern industrial superpower. Pavilion of Women is the first big-screen adaptation of a Buck novel to be released in more than 30 years. Set in 1938 inside the compound of the wealthy Wu family, the film opens as Madame Wu (Luo Yan) announces on her 40th birthday that she is retiring from her wifely duties and getting her husband a concubine. She finds a country girl for the job—which, it turns out, entails not much more than looking pretty and getting sexually assaulted by Mr. Wu. This subjugation of women becomes the ultimate proof of the moral bankruptcy of the Wu family’s way of life in the eyes of their son (John Cho), an ardent Communist. After Madame Wu starts taking lessons from her son’s teacher, Brother Andre, a freethinking Catholic missionary (Willem Dafoe), she begins to agree—and to fall in love with the clergyman. Dafoe manages to keep up a saintly demeanor even while throwing in a few longing looks at Yan; the two have decent chemistry until they actually get together, when it falls flat. Their romance proves short-lived, anyway: The Japanese army soon arrives, destroying everything in its path. Madame Wu survives, but the film’s final scene makes you wish she didn’t. Three years after the Japanese attack, she reunites with her son and her husband’s concubine, both of whom appear wearing Communist uniforms. In the middle of lush countryside, the three share a group hug with
a bunch of orphans, who come with such names as Charity and Humanity. Universal Focus touts the film as “an unprecedented co-production” with China’s Beijing Film Studios. With any luck, the company’s next cultural-exchange project will spare us the propaganda. —Annys Shin