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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Joy Luck': Three Hankies, No Sentimentality : Based on Amy Tan's best-selling novel, the film explores the honest emotions of four immigrant mothers and their U.S.-born daughters.

September 08, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

If "The Joy Luck Club" doesn't make you cry, nothing will. In an age of contrived and mechanical sentimentality, its deeply felt, straight-from-the-heart emotions and the unadorned way it presents them make quite an impact. No matter how many hankies you bring with you, it won't be enough.

Though feeble attempts will be made to pigeonhole it as a women's picture, "The Joy Luck Club" (AMC Century City) is more accurately a humane film, one that makes a point of being honest and compassionate about its characters and unashamed about their feelings. If men think this is of no interest to them, the species is in worse shape than we thought.

A story of distance and how to bridge it, of painful gaps between both mothers and daughters and immigrant parents and U.S.-born children, "The Joy Luck Club" gets its strength and clarity from the best-selling novel by Amy Tan it is based on.

*

Working as a creative troika, Tan, co-screenwriter Ronald Bass (an Oscar winner for "Rain Man") and director Wayne Wang ("Chan Is Missing") have kept the quiet simplicity of style that is the core of Tan's book, honed and focused its emotional impact, and not attempted to soften the bitterness of the conflicts it portrays. (This has apparently led to a perplexing R rating for "strong depiction of thematic material.")

The film has also taken advantage of the powerful chord it struck in the Asian-American community in general and among performers in particular. While their names are largely unfamiliar to general audiences, the eight actresses who play the film's four pairs of mothers and daughters are not only the pick of several generations of acting talent but also women who understand these characters from the inside and know how to take advantage of the opportunities the roles present.

Though Hollywood conventional wisdom says that eight people's stories are too many for an audience to handle, especially if recognizable faces aren't involved, "The Joy Luck Club" manages to preserve each tale's individuality while bringing them all together with an almost casual skill.

Though each woman's experience is involving, it is what these experiences say en masse about the drama behind the fabled golden door of immigrant dreams that is most moving. "Joy Luck" shows what happens to hope in America, how inevitable the estrangement is between parents who came to save their children from suffering and children who, without that kind of distress, can't begin to imagine what made their difficult parents the way they are.

The film's tone is set by its opening voice-over, taken from the book's fable-like first paragraphs, where an old woman remembers a swan she once bought in Shanghai. The bird first symbolized her hopes for America, for a daughter who "would always be too full to swallow any sorrow" and finally her bafflement at ending up with an uncomprehending child who grew up "swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow."

"The Joy Luck Club" opens at a going-away party in San Francisco (Amy Tan is the first guest seen on screen) for June (Ming-Na Wen), leaving the next day for a trip to China. Together with three other Chinese women, each the mother of an American-born daughter, June's late mother Suyuan had begun the club, a weekly mah-jongg gathering of wives who considered the hope of getting lucky their only joy.

This party is the hub from which the stories of each of these eight women (including Suyuan, portrayed in flashback by Kieu Chinh, Vietnam's preeminent actress) radiate out like spokes. A chance remark will trigger a reverie, and mothers and daughters then tell their stories in voice-over and flashback. With as many as three actresses portraying the protagonists at different ages, this may sound complex, but Wang and editor Maysie Hoy (who worked on "The Player") bring it off with perfect naturalness and comprehension.

The mothers' stories are invariably the harsher ones, taking place as they do in the old country, a hopeless nightmare society where a woman was taught, in the words of one, "to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery and eat her own bitterness."

Suyuan's tale involves the abandonment of children, that of Auntie Lindo (celebrated Chinese actress Tsai Chin), Suyuan's "best friend and archenemy," of an unfortunate arranged marriage. In their turn Auntie Ying Ying ("South Pacific's" France Nuyen) and Auntie An Mei (Lisa Lu, a veteran of both "One Eyed Jacks" and "The Last Emperor") tell equally agonized tales.

While Suyuan's daughter June and Auntie Lindo's daughter Waverly ("Come See the Paradise's" Tamlyn Tomita) get to relate stories of childhood rivalry, all four daughters, including Lena (Lauren Tom) and Rose (Rosalind Chao), talk of more adult difficulties, especially problems with the feckless men in their lives, troubles that stem in one way or another from the way their mothers have formed them. "I like being tragic, Ma," one of them says bitterly. "I learned it from you."

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