The Joy Luck Club, the 1993 weepie following a group of Asian-American women across several generations, seems to have all the earmarks of a typical "Chick Flick." It's slick, it's manipulative, it knows how to push the viewer's buttons (imagine a domineering Chinese matron sitting behind you, saying "You laugh. Now you cry."). The arrival of this prestige production on blu-ray allows us to once again indulge in its Chick Flick-iness, but in all honesty the film is as thoughtfully crafted, moving and unique an experience as it must have been in 1993. Not only are the disparate stories in the film pulled together beautifully, the standout performances by a mostly Asian-American female cast make it a unique, unforgettable experience.
Based on Amy Tan's best selling novel, The Joy Luck Club weaves together several stories that revolve around a humble mah jong club started in San Francisco by four older Chinese-American women. The film is bookended with a holiday party attended by members of all of the Joy Luck Club's extended families, including the daughters - whose lifestyle choices are often at odds with those of their more tradition-bound mothers. At this warm gathering, filled with multiple generations, some Chinese and others not, the women reflect on how far they've come as one of the daughters prepares to take her recently deceased mom's place at the mah jong table.
The Joy Luck Club relies on that old cinematic go-to of having the characters in voice-over narrating flashbacks from their own (and, sometimes, the younger generation's grandmothers') lives. The technique could have come across as messy or overflowing with schmaltz, but director Wang and the film's editors accomplish this with startling fluidity. It's clear that Wang, who had previously overseen acclaimed indie dramas like Chan Is Missing (1982) and Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985), had a special affinity for bringing this Asian-American story to the screen. Despite the cultural and gender-specific nature of the story, however, there are a lot of overriding themes explored here (such as the daughters fearing that they're repeating their moms' mistakes) that have a universal scope and appeal.
The main characters in the film, all of whom deal with the need to preserve tradition while casting away the old restrictive Chinese ways, are all worth mentioning:
- Suyuan (Kieu Chihn) and her daughter, June (Ming Na Wen). Suyuan, the Joy Luck Club's founder, came to the U.S. after a devastating episode where - delirious from illness and exhaustion - she had to abandon her infant babies in war-torn China. June, the most sensible of the daughters, learns that the two half-sisters are alive and well in China after her mother's death. At her aunties' urging, she embarks on a trip overseas to meet them.
- Lindo (Tsai-Chin) and her daughter, Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita). In China, Lindo escaped an arranged marriage to a bratty boy, an ordeal that shaped her hard-as-nails personality. In a segment most reminiscent of the recent "Tiger Mom" brouhaha, Waverly relates that her mother's domineering goes back to when she was a child chess prodigy. Lindo's emotional distance continues in the present day when Waverly falls for a white man who is unaccustomed to the Chinese ways.
- Ying-Ying (France Nuyen) and her daughter, Lena (Lauren Tom). Ying-Ying's turbulent marriage to an abusive, philandering man in China leaves her a basket case, but she has the presence of mind to be alarmed that her daughter Lena is similarly compelled to marry an anal-retentive architect. It leaves Lena an emotional wreck, too, but does she have the strength to escape?
- An-Mei (Lisa Lu) and her daughter, Rose (Rosalyn Chao). An-Mei's outlook is shaped by her mother, who scandalized the family by becoming a rich man's concubine after she was left a widow. The perceptiveness of An-Mei as a young girl carries through to the present day, when she becomes alarmed at the submissiveness of the normally intelligent Rose after she marries a wealthy (and white) publishing scion.
The Joy Luck Club would be a worthwhile watch if only for its sheer uniqueness (Asian-American experiences are still pretty rarely dramatized on film, much less one as plushly produced as this). If I were to level one criticism at the film, it would be that the Suyuan/June story winds up being overplayed, especially near the amped-up-for-maximum-tears ending. The film has also gotten some criticism for its portrayal of Asian men, although it seemed fair and accurate overall (they also forget that actor Chao Li Chi has a gem of a scene as June's father, one of the film's few level-headed men). The cast is pretty wonderful overall, especially Tsai Chin as the domineering Lindo and Vivian Wu (The Last Emperor) as An-Mei's tragically fated mother.
Hollywood Pictures' blu-ray edition of The Joy Luck Club sports an excellent transfer that showcases the 1.85:1 image well. The film's cinematography has a warm, clean feel with a distinct lack of the graininess and wan color palettes which often show up in disc versions of early '90s-era films. Darks are slightly in the high-key range, otherwise the beautiful photography is exquisitely preserved here.
The blu-ray's DTS soundtrack is a nice, low-key track having clear dialogue in the center channel with ambient dialogue and sound effects around the sides (an effect that I especially noticed during the party scenes). Rachel Portman's evocative scoring is well integrated with the rest of the film's soundtrack. The film is mostly spoken in English, with several scenes having subtitled Mandarin dialogue. The disc provides subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish. Alternate audio tracks are also provided in French 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 digital.
Like the no-frills DVD edition, there are no supplements (damn, I would have enjoyed a Wayne Wang/Amy Tan commentary on this).
Wayne Wang's The Joy Luck Club still counts as one of the more noteworthy American big-studio films from the '90s, a dramatic examination of Chinese-American mother/daughter relationships that manages to be both encylopedic and intimate. The spare but nicely mounted blu-ray edition serves as a good excuse to check it out again. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.