The Joy Luck Club
Directed by Wayne Wang. Starring Kieu Chinh, Tsai Chin, France Nuyen, Lisa Lu, Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita, Lauren Tom, Rosalind Chao, Vivian Wu. (1993, R, 139 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 8, 1993
I love to cry while watching movies, but I prefer to do it on my own terms. I hate being told when to cry. I'd rather feel surprised than manipulated when I sense the tears rolling. The Joy Luck Club, adapted for the screen by Amy Tan from her popular novel, pierces through your tear ducts in its ultimate path toward your heart. The route is quite effective but, admittedly, it's something of a guerrilla maneuver, a rabbit punch to your affective system. Nevertheless, there's no ignoring the fact that The Joy Luck Club is a moving work, both a contemporary and an eternal story about the interlinked boundaries between mothers and daughters. Genes, cultural identity, compensatory behaviors, sins of omission, commission and remission -- who's to say? Where does it all start and where does it end? Daughters become their mothers, no matter how hard both parties desire for that not to happen. Daughters also become different from their mothers, despite all attempts to perpetuate the status quo. The story revolves around four women who play mahjongg together regularly in a group they call the Joy Luck Club. All four were born in China and came to America as young adults. They are all best friends and they all have daughters. As filmed, the entire story is a fabrication that allows each woman to experience an extended flashback that highlights the flashpoint moments in her life. Each mother's flashback merges into her daughter's memories. The boundaries are not always separable and each of the eight stories told here are engrossing and stirring. The gravity of the events that these women experienced in China, the differences and similarities in the lives of these daughters who've grown up in America -- none of that pain and suffering is evident from a cursory glance at their lives. Within the movie, they scratch past the surface and prick our sensibilities with marksman-like precision. However, in the course of this sweeping inter-generational drama, there is a tendency for the individual stories to get lost in the overarching swirl of events. Eight separate stories become difficult to keep straight in your head. It's just too much detail in too little time. Arguable, of course, is the degree to which the entire point of the story is, rightly, the merger of their individual identities into a collective whole. Personally, I have to admit feeling more jumble than merger. Also, it prompted me to question (quite atypically) where all the fathers in these stories were. Men are either absent or shadowy figures. Still, The Joy Luck Club is one of the season's highlights, the kind of roller coaster ride that we interpret as “good” because of the unmistakable sensations experienced along the way.