Joy Luck Club, The: Wayne Wang’s Adaptation of Amy Tan’s Best-Selling Novel

At the end of the press screening of “The Joy Luck Club,” Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s best-selling novel, the Disney publicity people stood outside the theater and handed Kleenex to the critics. It is, of course, a marketing tool–the movie is sold as a three-handkerchief woman’s melodrama. But it also trivializes a fine film that in its ambition goes far beyond mainstream entertainment.

I may be less vulnerable than other viewers, but I didn’t shed tears, though I found the film extremely moving. More significantly, however, “Joy Luck Club” may prove to be the most important Chinese-American film ever made.

With a few notable exceptions, Asian Americans have not enjoyed favorable treatment in American movies. You may recall Michael l985 Cimino’s sleazy actioner, “Year of the Dragon,” about the Chinese Mafia in New York’s Chinatown, as one typical example.

In their attempt to diversify their family entertainment fare, which for the most part is mediocre, Disney has taken under its wings Miramax, producer Joe Roth, and the creative team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, responsible for “Howards End.” And now comes “Joy Luck Club.”

Unlike other ethnic groups (the Jewish, African-American, Hispanic), there are not many Asian-American filmmakers, which is one reason for the under representation of Asian Americans on our screens. With good marketing (which is Disney’s forte) and positive word of mouth, “Joy Luck Club” may be a breakthrough for the portrayal of Asians in America. If it succeeds, many other films will follow, like the recent cycle of black-themed films.

“Joy Luck Club” is an “immigrants” picture par excellence. Beautifully made, the film is an emotionally heart-rending study of generational gap–but also continuity–between Chinese mothers and their Chinese-American daughters. The film probes such universal issues as mothers’ expectations for, pressure on, and disappointment in their daughters when they don’t surpass them, when they end up being just as victimized or abused as they were in China.

I couldn’t do justice to the richness of the film and book (which I read just before seeing the movie). Wang, who also co-wrote the screenplay, retains the universal emotional qualities of the source material. The exposition, which embraces decades and goes back and forth from past to present, and from one woman to another, is always lucid and riveting. What unifies the episodic structure is a farewell party for June (Ming-Na Wen), one of the daughters, as she is ready to go to China and meet her twin sisters. Their mother was forced to abandon the twin babies during her flight from war-torn country.

Another touching episode is when one of June’s mahjong-playing aunties, Lindo (Tsai Chin) tells how she was sold into marriage by her mother when she was 15, and how she and her daughter Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita) endured hard years before they finally reached reconciliation. Rose (Rosalind Chao), married to an insensitive, career-oriented white male (Andrew McCarthy), reveals the devastating saga of her mother An Mei (Lisa Lu), who was one of many wives to a Chinese lord and sacrificed herself for her daughter.

The casting must have been a major challenge, as each of the eight women is beautiful and distinctive. Naturally, the acting is variable, ranging from splendid performances by Tsai Chin and Rosalind Chao to less impressive ones by Ming Na-Wen.

The miracle is that the film just happens to be politically correct. It’s not a feminist agenda picture, and though dealing with Asian-American women, it propagates cultural diversity. Watching this film, I kept thinking to myself: a similar work about generational strife between Jewish immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters needs to be made.

Ingmar Bergman, who was also fascinated by women, made his best movies about them. In its sensibility and style, “Joy Luck Club” brings to mind “Cries and Whispers” (1973) and especially “Autumn Sonata” (1978), a great melodrama about the conflict between a pianist mother (Ingrid Bergman) and her bitter, neglected daughter (Liv Ullmann).

The visual style is rich, but not sumptuous and overbearing like Scorsese’s Age of Innocence. As befits its intimate scale and psychological nature, most of the film is done through close-ups. Amir Mokri’s spectacular cinematography provides glorious close-ups of eight Chinese-American women. Toward the end of the picture, there is one crucial sequence that is shot in an epic style, recalling Bernardo Bertolucci’s style. It’s the only sequence that uses long shots and that somehow “violates” the otherwise personal nature of the material.

At its best moments, the film provides a rare perspective of a cultural experience that has been missing from our screens. Each of the stories is different, yet the overall emotional tone is coherent and the thematic link clear: Most of the women, of both generations, have been victims in one-way or another.

Despite the fact that “Joy Luck Club” premiered in such prestigious film festivals as Telluride and Toronto, I won’ describe it as an art film, or a particularly demanding work. I have reservations about the film’s melodramatics, which at times is excessive, though I realize that it will make the picture more accessible to the large public. My only complaint against the film is that it’s too long (2 hours and 20 minutes) and that it contains, as does the book, too many stories and too many flashbacks.

While the film’s focus is always intimate, the fascinating political context makes the issues broader, more resonant. Like all good films, “Joy Luck Club” is at once particular and universal.