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The Joy Luck Club

Posted by martinteller on January 1, 2014

The stories of four mothers who play mah jongg together, and the stories of their daughters.  Suyuan (Kieu Chinh) abandoned two children in China.  Suyuan is recently deceased, but the other members of the club have managed to track down the children, who were long assumed to be dead.  Now Suyuan’s American daughter June (Ming-na Wen) is preparing to travel to China and meet them… and also break the news that their mother is gone.  June reflects on a childhood of trying to please her mother, and feeling invisible.  June’s best friend/archenemy is Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita).  Waverly had her own maternal expectations to live up to, trying to be a chess champion but her skills flag after an argument with her mother.  As an adult, she tries to gain her mother’s approval of her boyfriend Rich (Christopher Rich), but is met with passive-aggressive gestures.  Waverly’s mother Lindo (Ying Wu) struggles with her own demons, recalling a marriage into a miserable family, arranged in her youth.  Ying-Ying (France Nuyen) also has an unhappy marriage in her Chinese past, to a charming man who turns out to be a cruel philanderer.  Their infant son becomes a tragic pawn.  The pattern is passed down to Ying-Ying’s daughter Lena (Lauren Tom), whose husband Harold (Michael Paul Chan) is coldly efficient, keeping exact records of finances to be split evenly in the interest of “fairness”.  The fourth member of the club is An-Mei (Yi Ding), whose mother was unfairly disowned by the family.  An-Mei is reunited with her mother years later, but the mother is now the lowest concubine in a wealthy household.  An-Mei’s daughter Rose (Rosalind Chao) has also married wealth, but the distance between her and her husband (Andrew McCarthy) grows wider and wider.

Whew.  That’s a lot of stories.  As with most multi-threaded movies, some plots satisfy more than others.  For me, the weakest was the Lena/Harold relationship, which didn’t feel fleshed out at all, based entirely on a singular characteristic.  Although Harold isn’t a dastardly villain, we don’t see enough of him to flesh him out, or their relationship.  But I’d say all of the other stories have something to offer, even if occasionally a bit cliché.  Most are given ample time to convey the emotional context, and none feel too drawn out.  I am somehow drawn to mother-daughter dynamics in film, despite the fact that I am of course neither.  I would have liked to have seen more variation in these relationships, but perhaps it is a truism that mothers and daughters will always butt heads.

I have not seen a Wayne Wang movie since Smoke was in the theaters (this was his last film prior to that).  I found the filmmaking rather accomplished, with some wonderful classical compositions and a fine sense of pacing.  The performances are generally good, especially from the senior actresses.  Rosalind Chao didn’t resonate with me that much, but perhaps I can’t stop seeing her as Keiko on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.  And although Ming-Na Wen is very good when on screen, her narration is terrible, very stilted and dull, as if reading directly off the page while trying not to sound like she’s not reading directly off the page.

The film occasionally feels a little too melodramatic, and the overblown score by Rachel Portman doesn’t help.  The strings can hardly let an emotional moment go by without soaring to let you know how to feel.  Some of the dialogue is painfully on-the-nose.  Nonetheless, the movie is genuinely moving, and in several places I got choked up.  I liked these characters a great deal, and I enjoyed the insight into struggles of women through two generations, and the difficulties that come with a mother-daughter bond.  Rating: Good (75)


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