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Stories From the Heart : The plot lines of the characters of the 'Joy Luck Club' strike a chord with the film's Asian-American cast

September 05, 1993|BLAISE SIMPSON | Blaise Simpson is a free-lance writer based in San Francisco.

The eight stars of Hollywood Pictures' "The Joy Luck Club" are gathered in a hotel suite near the Los Angeles airport. Three of the actresses who play the film's Chinese-American daughters, Ming-Na Wen, Rosalind Chao and Lauren Tom, are madly drying each other's hair in the bathroom, giggling self-consciously as a photographer tries to capture their images in the mirror.

In the main room, Tamlyn Tomita, "Joy Luck's" fourth daughter, is wandering around in a slinky black gown, barefoot, asking "Have you seen my shoes?" Tsai Chin, who plays Tomita's mother in the movie, unearths a pair of platform sandals from beneath the cushions of her chair, calling out, "Here's a pair," in an amused voice.

France Nuyen, Lisa Lu and Kieu Chinh, the actresses who portray the mothers of the other girls, sit together on the sofa, sipping tea and chatting like long-lost friends while makeup artists hover over them with brushes and powder.

"You see, this is how it was when we were filming," Kieu Chinh confides, amid the hubbub.

Tsai Chin, who traveled from her home in London for the interview, appears genuinely delighted to see Tomita, saying, "Now I have a daughter. She's my film daughter, but Tamlyn is like my own. We are constantly in touch and we write, 'Dear Mother, Dear Daughter.' I'm glad that her real mother is not jealous."

The camaraderie between the eight actresses is unusual in the movie business but extraordinarily similar to the relationships between the first and second generation Chinese-American characters in "The Joy Luck Club." The screenplay, written by Amy Tan, the author of the best-selling novel, and Ron Bass, adroitly captures the book's central theme of the difficulties and benefits of being from two cultures. Although the novel was translated into 19 languages, the story of the generational conflicts of four young women struggling to be successful American citizens while coming to grips with their Chinese heritage--as personified by their mothers--is uniquely American.

The mothers have gathered at a weekly mah-jongg game in San Francisco, known as the Joy Luck Club, for as long as their daughters can remember. There they relive their tumultuous pasts and discuss their dreams for their daughters' futures. Their aspirations are summed up by one mother's wish before leaving China: "In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband's belch. Over there nobody will look down on her because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow!"

The movie of "The Joy Luck Club" is unique in providing an unheard-of number of meaty roles for Asian actresses. In addition to the eight stars of the film, there are other parts for actresses playing the mothers as young women in China and their own mothers.

This is not a costume drama about the exotic East. The film, directed by Wayne Wang ("Chan is Missing," "Dim Sum"), focuses on the realistic lives of modern Asian-Americans.

"Doing this movie was kind of like we were racers in an Olympic Games relay and we got to pass the baton to each other," says Tom, who plays Lena. "The reality of it is that we usually audition against each other. But this was a really great camaraderie where we said, OK, we're going to focus all of our creativity on this one project and see if we can make something beautiful."

The eight lead actresses won their roles during auditions with 400 Asian actors. Although they may not be familiar to the general public, they are well known to Asian audiences and have accomplished backgrounds.

Lu, who starred with Jimmy Stewart in "The Mountain Road," has published a book of her own translations of Chinese plays and is a respected journalist for the Voice of America radio network, World Screen magazine and the China Times newspaper. Besides her career as an actress, Chin has written an autobiography, "Daughter of Shanghai," taught at Tufts University and directed theater in London and China.

Nuyen, who plays Ying Ying in "The Joy Luck Club," originated the title role in "The World of Suzie Wong" on Broadway and has starred in many films since her debut as Liat in the movie of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific." She now squeezes acting jobs into her schedule as a professional therapist for abused women and children.

The other actresses are all currently working on other film and theater projects.

The movie opens with a party for June (Ming-Na Wen), who is about to leave for China. While the other characters eat and gossip, June is asked to take the place of her late mother, Suyuan (Kieu Chinh), at the mah-jongg table and the characters' stories unfold in vignettes going backward and forward in mothers' and daughters' lives.

A flashback explaining June's insecurity, which began with her childhood failure as a pianist, was one of the many plot lines that struck a chord with the actresses.

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