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One character’s incredulous query—“How can a daughter not know her own mother?”—deftly summarizes the theme of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. It’s a question that Wayne Wang’s film doesn’t answer with the novel’s fluency, at least in part because its saccharine demeanor undermines the book’s staunchly unsentimental reply to the question.
As scripted by Tan and Ronald (Rain Man) Bass, The Joy Luck Club is heartwarming where the book is heartbreaking. But this is hardly surprising since it was co-authored by a man who penned a nutty road movie about autism. The film’s relative lack of nuance is also traceable to the amount of material it encompasses: Wang (Eat a Bowl of Tea) was committed to retaining all eight of the book’s core stories, which necessitated a considerable amount of cutting and pasting. The film relates the histories of four Chinese mothers—Suyuan (Kieu Chinh), Lindo (Tsai Chin), Ying Ying (France Nuyen), and An Mei (Lisa Lu)—who immigrated to San Francisco during the ’50s. Concurrently, it introduces their American-born daughters—June (Ming-Na Wen), Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita), Lena (Lauren Tom), and Rose (Rosalind Chao)—and explores the often disabling cross-cultural communication between the mothers and daughters.
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Those parts of the film that examine the older generation’s experiences as young women in China are the most effective by far. Not only are they more successful at retaining the tone and cadence of Tan’s novel, they have an authenticity that the “modern day” portions of the film—which tend to play like thirtysomething with a Chinese-American cast—do not. Tales like that of Lindo, who at 14 was left alone at the home of her future husband, of An Mei, whose beautiful widowed mother was snared into being the concubine of a wealthy man, and of Suyuan, who was forced as a refugee from wartime Kweilin to abandon her twin daughters by the roadside, supply vivid images of China during the first half of the 20th century and, most incisively, of women’s place in the social order.
It is no wonder, then, that to these immigrant women, daughters become “vessels of hope.” But, tellingly, the daughters are ignorant of their mothers’ stories. Though they don’t know the details of their respective mothers’ pasts, each daughter is absorbed in living out the reverberations of her mother’s life in her own. In this sense, at least, the question “how can a daughter not know her own mother?” becomes moot.
In many cases, anchoring Tan’s stories firmly in time deprives them of their mythic quality. For instance, when young June refuses to continue her piano lessons for reasons the movie doesn’t have much time for, another explanation is provided in Americanized shorthand: We see her plastered to the TV as the theme from The Monkees blares forth. June’s rivalry with Waverly is similarly condensed when, in lieu of exposition, she actually hisses, “Twerp!” at her enemy from the stage during a piano recital. Some of the film’s shortcuts are effective (the Hsus’ plastic furniture covers in their new American home seem to mirror An Mei’s exaggerated discomfort in her new surroundings), some less so (when Waverly argues with her mother about living with her boyfriend, she doesn’t need to brandish condoms in Mom’s face to clarify the real issue at hand).
The most perplexing changes wrought by The Joy Luck Club‘s transition from book to film fall under the general heading of second-generation romance. The compliant Rose Jordan’s divorce be comes an unconvincing recon ciliation. The same is true of Lena St. Clair, who at book’s end is mired in a marriage so loveless that every purchase is tallied on a his & hers balance sheet. In the film, she evidently finds the wherewithal to escape her icy husband: We never see what happened, but at its closing gathering, she has a handsome new beau on her arm. This generalized air-brushing of the daughters’ man troubles serves no purpose save providing closure, Hollywood-style. And in so doing, it sweeps one of the book’s most provocative issues—the obstacles faced by girls whose mothers are products of a culture in which women are traditionally submissive—under the rug.