Registering the Registry 2020: The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we look at what was hailed as the first in a new wave of mainstream Asian-American starring and produced Hollywood films that never arrived until decades later. Widely beloved despite its lack of magical erasure of Hollywood’s color bias, it is a story of mothers and daughters struggling to understand one another, and their identity in an adopted homeland. We’re looking at The Joy Luck Club from 1993, so why dilly-dally any further? Right into it with us!

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Indulge me a digression to describe a related film, so we might better understand today’s subject.

During production on Wayne Wang’s 1985 feature Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, something went wrong. Wang and editor Ralph Wikke sat down after principle photography’s close to review their footage and assemble a final cut, and found the movie simply would not work. An entire movie shot by Emiko Omori, originally envisioned as a sprawling domestic epic about five women navigating the complexities of second-generation immigrant life in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and nothing they did could make the movie sing, bring an ounce of life or believability to the story. Faced with a nonfunctional picture, Wang took the radical step of hiring a new cinematographer in Michael Chin (retaining Omori as a camera operator), completely overhauling his movie to the point of reducing many original stars to secondary or background characters, and reshooting the entire movie with a renewed emphasis on star Laureen Chew’s relationship with her real life mother Kim. Footage from the original version of Dim Sum eventually emerged in 1988 as the ten minute short Dim Sum Takeout. Though one cannot precisely gleam the intended feel from its mixture of montage and music video punk stylings, it does make a sharp contrast against the quiet, contemplative, Ozu-emulating final version Wang released on the independent circuit. Certainly, there would’ve been a lot more of it, and on evidence of the director’s later films, perhaps the sheer scope of what was there overwhelmed any individual component’s ability to shine.

It’s worth relating a brief version of the Dim Sum tale in relation to The Joy Luck Club, for Amy Tan’s 1989 debut novel also did not fully retain its shape on the journey from inception to screen. In print, the book is structured as a soul baring game of symbolic mahjong, broken into four sections shared between four sets of mothers and daughters, swapping cardinal seats as the story progresses. The first segment begins with protagonist June Woo taking her mother Suyuan’s place at the titular Joy Luck Club, a mahjong gathering the elder Woo began to distract from her worries during the Second World War in China, kept going in the US as a means of bonding with her new friends and dealing with life’s strains, and now continues after her death via aneurysm. Following introductions to her mother’s friends (Aunties Lindo Jong, An-Mei Hsu, and Ying-Ying St. Clair), June learns two babies her mother abandoned whilst fleeing the Japanese army in her youth are alive and healthy in modern day Singapore, and is asked to journey abroad, tell her half-sisters of their mother’s death, and share all the stories she knows about Suyuan to make up for lost time — stories June worries she does not know after a lifetime of combative relations with her mother. Appropriately, the rest of the book is nothing but stories, anecdotes shared in the cycling manner of players making moves at the mahjong table. Three tales about childhood hardships in China from each of the three Aunties, then four tales of childhood hardships under a mother’s watch in America from the daughters (June, Waverly Jong, Rose Hsu Jordan, and Lena St. Clair), then four tales of adult woes and moments of realization about their mothers from the daughters, then three mixed tales about the mothers’ relationships with their daughters as related back to further child/young adulthood stories from the mothers, with June’s trip to China and final realization about just how close she and her mother were despite the years of resentment and coldness closing the novel.

This cycling, temporally-detached approach to narrative creates an immensely intimate experience, a sensation like understanding someone’s deepest heart on their own terms. While I confess as much ignorance to the actual play of mahjong as any Westerner with minimal exposure to Chinese social experiences, I believe the intent behind Tan’s linking the structure to the game is clear for all to see. Instead of revealing and playing one’s tiles in a carefully controlled, close-to-the-chest game of skill and wit, we start with the true self concealed beneath the decades’ guards and security, only to reveal a relevant experience about cleverness saving more than one’s own life, about how the loss of a child shook a mother’s faith in the divine, about the power in a single word spoken or unspoken, about the legacy discovered in an ordinary, previously discarded name. The book keeps you in this state of watching all seven active players (and one absent) share disconnected anecdotes from behind their eyes, understanding pieces of their soul through happy victories or regret at having pushed too hard or not disciplining enough or thinking two modes of character can mix without dilution, until we have arrived at a deeply-felt understanding of not only those who told the stories, but those absent who live on through the telling. It is complete a work as I can imagine, touching on a multitude of experiences and perspectives within a single chapter, much less all sixteen, and its raw emotional intensity played no small part in delaying this review’s publication as I kept finding excuses to not read another chapter of something I enjoyed yet found emotionally devastating at every turn.

It is also a work whose contents would likely not make a commercially successful project when arranged such, intolerable for something produced under Disney’s Hollywood Pictures label and distributed through their Buena Vista Productions. The Joy Luck Club’s film adaptation was championed and partially financed through Oliver Stone with an eye towards mainstream crossover, and the film’s final release managed just this, becoming only the second major American studio feature about a majority Asian-American cast in a contemporary setting, thirty-two years after Flower Drum Song… and twenty-five before the third in Crazy Rich Asians. There was serious money tied up in this movie, quite a lot for a story about people who never starred in their own stories on this level. Cycling temporal displacement in which the participants’ presentational order can shift and major life events occur all out of order allows an emphasis on the thematic and soulful in the literary medium; in the filmic, the best one can hope for is a moviegoer telling their friends, “It was confusing, but I liked it!” and only seeing the first part of that statement land, wrecking the box office. The American moviegoer is stereotypically a fickler creature than the American reader, and Amy Tan’s screenplay for The Joy Luck Club film thus becomes substantially different from her book. Not in contents, you understand, though details do change — in ordering. In cooperation with Rain Man screenwriter Ronald Bass, the film gains a framing device in the form of June’s going away party, a celebration peopled with all relevant cast members, which transitions into and out of shared remembrances from the non-Woo families for the great majority of the runtime, with June’s childhood and adulthood contributions from the novel placed at the very start and very, very end. Rather than experientially or thematically linked anecdotes, we experience the Jong, St. Clair, and Hsu family stories in largely chronological order, with resolutions between mother and daughter unique to the film at the close of each.

For the sake of clarity, let’s blitz through each of these three strands, as to ensure we’re all on the same page:

  • Lindo (Tsai Chin present, Irene Ng flashback) was given away by a matchmaker when she was just a child, sent to marry a boy and deliver grandchildren in a loveless marriage. Through clever exploitation of superstitious beliefs, she won her freedom. Years later, her daughter Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita present, Mai Vu flashback) is a local chess champion, her mother’s bragging pride and joy, which comes to an end when Waverly challengers Lindo’s use of her as a prideful token, leading to strain between the two and a total loss of Waverly’s confidence. In the present, Waverly plans to marry Rich (Christopher Rich), and endlessly frets over whether or not her mother will approve, especially when Rich makes an utter ass of himself through bad table manners at a family meeting. Mother and daughter reveal their innermost doubts to one another at a hair salon, finally understanding that beneath their sharp-witted, competitive natures, they really do want what’s best for one another, and only speak so harshly because they care.
  • Ying-Ying (France Nuyen present, Faye Yu flashback) made the poor choice of marrying a cruel man (Russell Wong) in China, an adulterer who enjoyed bringing his conquests home and mocking her pain at his infidelity. Without realizing the weight of her actions, she took the one thing she could to hurt him and escape the marriage by drowning their infant son in the bath. A lifetime of trauma recovery followed, and by the time Ying-Ying was again lucid, her daughter Lena (Lauren Tom) had married a similarly cruel man (Michael Paul Chan) who torments her by making all purchases supposedly fair and even through a labyrinthian system of calculations that makes no account for his vastly greater salary. With Lena too attached to her routine to acknowledge her unhappiness, Ying-Ying overbalances a poorly designed table to shatter a vase and gain her daughter’s attention, having a heart to heart about recognizing your value before you are driven to desperate action, and successfully inspiring her daughter to stand up for herself.
  • In childhood, An-Mei (Lisa Lu present, Yi Ding flashback) saw her mother (Vivian Wu) banished from the house for reasons she could not understand. Scalded by hot soup in the middle of an argument, she lived with an uncaring family until her mother arrived to display a daughter’s sacrificial loyalty for the dying grandmother who’d long since disowned her. Decades down the line, Rose (Rosalind Chao) is in the midst of divorce from Ted (Andrew McCarthy), a man she once loved for his passion and willingness to defy racist parents, now revealed as distant and hollow through numerous affairs. With her daughter paralyzed by the weight of her choice, An-Mei tells Rose of how she came to live with her own mother. Raped by a wealthy man and not believed when she told the truth, An-Mei’s mother had to serve as lowly fourth wife in a household dominated by a cruel and calculating second wife (Elizabeth Sung), slowly revealing the sheer indignities of her situation beneath the false glamor of security in wealth, until she took her own life to kill her weak spirit and strengthen An-Mei. Just as An-Mei learned to shout from her mother’s death, this story inspires Rose to plant herself against Rich’s demands for quick action and fight for what’s hers in the divorce.

(Worth brief mention: Ying-Ying, Lena, and Rose’s childhood stories were all exorcised in adaptation. I mention this primarily because Rose’s story about her young brother Bing drowning at the beach due to her carelessness and An-Mei’s tireless search for the boy in faith against reason completely wrecked me while reading, and I am sad to see such a personal highlight left out.)

In praise of the film, Wang’s direction shines anytime we are fully immersed within one of these stories. His quiet observational style finds strong expression in Ying-Ying cradling a broken plate like the shattered hopes of her marriage, Lindo and Waverly staring into a salon mirror and crying as equals, little An-Mei understanding the great burden of her mother’s situation and silently weeping with understanding of what will happen next. The louder moments work too, irrespective any tendency they display towards melodrama: young Lindo half-screaming the warnings of displeased ancestors to frighten her boy husband’s family, Lena’s argument with her husband overwhelming the sounds of Jeopardy in the background, little Waverly pushing her mother’s hand too far and realizing she has no quarter by which to fix things. Settings all provide a pretty backdrop for these moments, from richly decorated Chinese manors to coldly modern American designer homes. Most vitally, the introduction of open conversation between parent and child at the close of each major segment within the film provides adaptation something the book never offered: closure. One may become exhausted by the repetition, or think the novel’s endless questioning of whether or not two persons so closely related yet so distant as a result of years living as their own people a superior route, but there is satisfaction in watching these paired women bring everything to the surface and let it all out without any illusions or misunderstanding between one another. The silver screen is uniquely suited to these all-at-once outpourings, and it makes a glad addition to watch them after every strand.

Unfortunately, while Wang has the in-the-moment aspects of this enormous narrative down-pat, the means through which he actually stitches it all together render exhaustion the overwhelming sensation of the film. I do not compress the film to any meaningful degree in my above-outlined bullet points: practically every scene in The Joy Luck Club is its own emotional climax, the single highest point of strain, tragedy, heartbreak, revelation, understanding you can reach, hit with an equal level of intensity again and again and again. Beneath a structure that emphasizes the plot over the intimate personal experience of each individual tale for the purpose of highlighting the final understanding between each mother-daughter pair, we get to know these characters largely through their harshest moments, a collection of extreme highs and lows with precious little sense of what life is like when it’s not in active collapse. Tan’s prose handles this well, because the written word can weave a far fuller picture of the gaps between the words than the camera, or at least compared to a camera wholly focused on the solid present over the intangible miasma of a life. We experience these stories as collected snapshots on the page, strengthened and amplified and made more than simple related traumas by gradual, scattered understanding. Collected all in a row AND capped by new heights intended as even higher than the assemblage leading into each climax, it demands much from the attentive mind and actively devalues the impact of any one tragedy.

This on its own is not insurmountable. Shaky structure can be readily overcome by stellar execution, which isn’t exactly what we have here. With Tan as screenwriter, I’m inclined to diagnose the problem as an inability to let go of the notion her characters are directly telling their stories in the words she used on the page. N’other words, The Joy Luck Club relies on a hell’ve a lot’ve voiceover to link scenes together and provide additional context for characters’ inner thoughts, and it is damned near ruinous. Across the mothers and daughters, who swap narration roles where appropriate, I find only Lisa Lu imbues her voice-only part with the sort of emotional immediacy necessary to make this work — everyone else sounds stiff and self-conscious, like they are deliberately measuring every word to make sure it comes out with maximum clarity. It makes for a deathly addition to the film, a reminder of this new structure’s limitations every time a bodiless voice appears, and it gets especially bad with Ming-Na Wen as June, who struggles to achieve a natural cadence at all turns. During a scene when she speaks a portion of the opening narration to a child, she not only comes across awkwardly as ever, she confirms my suspicions about the issue with all the voiceover pieces. They sound less like they’re baring their souls, and more like they’re telling bedtime stories. And then you go and pair this with the music… good lord do I hate Rachel Portman’s score here. Intrusive and instructive in the worst way, barging into every emotional scene to SWELL with IMPORT and TRAGEDY and let you know exactly what you should be feeling and how intensely, with no room for subtle grace or break from the banging insistence one experience the moment with this EXACT reaction. You couple these problems together, and a well-made movie starts to become a chore of a watch across its hundred-forty minute runtime.

This new structure does June’s parts of the story the dirtiest service of all. Returns to the party framing device between strands of family narratives only offer the worrying question of who’ll tell June her half-sisters don’t know their mother is dead to string us along, a device ill-suited to building intrigue or segueing into each Auntie’s new story alike. June herself feels greatly distanced from her friends, her early-film childhood story of failing at piano an oddly parenthetical early passage by its separation, her late-film adult story of feeling betrayed by her mother at a family dinner and finding comfort in the knowledge she really did care somehow lessened by coming so late in the hour, lessened by coming in such close presentational proximity to another revelation for her about the same. Without coming in the form of a story told by her mother within a bitter flashback to childhood, in a chapter where June first takes her mother’s place in life and story, the early revelation she abandoned two babies in China all those years ago simply drops into the movie, a casual fact lacking real weight. Moreover, Wen’s passages most often deny her the ability to interact with other characters or just plain act onscreen, leaving us distant looks complimented by flat voicework, a far cry from the standards you’d expect from someone lauded for her performance in Mulan a decade later. By separating her from the pack, by organizing the other three pairings into linear segments and leaving June to open and close the film without intermingling amongst all parties’ stories like she does in the novel, by rendering the character who needs the most screentime the one who receives least, Tan’s solution for making The Joy Luck Club work as a movie practically kills the story’s thematic core.

Practically, but not entirely. Though these changes and their handling gall me, I confess a strong degree of bias via having read the book prior to watching, even though I maintain these issues would harm the film without such knowledge. To take the film on its own merits, read the thing at its own level, Tan and Wang do find new meaning within this structure. Poorly as I think the construction handled, it DOES directly tie mothers’ and daughters’ experiences into a continuous line, shows the importance of an honest, direct reckoning between the two generations, one which can produce greater understanding and happiness in its aftermath than leaving words unspoken. June had a reckoning with her mother (Kiều Chinh) during the “best quality heart” scene, but nothing so directly related to her mother’s past like her friends, and now her mother is gone, completely denying her something similar. Through a heart-to-heart with her father (Chao-Li Chi), through the final scene in which she first meets her sisters in Singapore, through these last climactic scenes differentiated from the established pattern by absence and alternate connections, we may come to understand the film’s own position. To connect and bond and know is of utmost importance. To learn the stories and pass them on is vital, and to allow distance so much consumption over your life that a loved one is lost before you can learn the stories is tragic beyond tragedy. So long as one is ever willing to listen, however, so long as one is open to bond outside the rigid structure of a mother to her daughter and a daughter to her mother, a lost parent’s life and legacy and true self can still be found in the ways they touched everyone else in their life, including you. Something undying from generations’ past lives in your heart, if only you will listen and unlock it with the key of fresh knowing.

The filmic version of The Joy Luck Club communicates this fairly impactfully, despite the aspects I find annoying, or intolerable, or outright destructive. For my gripes, I must admit this much. I sometimes worry I do myself and the Registry films a massive disservice by reading the source material of adapted pictures beforehand, as it often reframes my viewpoint from judging a singular film to comparing related works. In this case, though, I have to defend myself. Reading The Joy Luck Club proved an intensely personal experience, one that inspired a great deal of self-reflection and doubt, fears of not knowing enough about my own parents as they approach their own twilight years, paralysis over how to confront the issue without simultaneously confronting the inevitability of death in order to challenge its approach. There exists in my heart an immense deal of attachment to the book, and moreover how the book’s approach to this story enabled it to punch straight through cultural barriers and tell a universal story, yet one marked by dozens upon dozens of perspectives on the specific difficulties of these lies and backgrounds all the same. What Amy Tan accomplished on page really is remarkable in its capacity for personal connection, and when I look on what she wrote for the screen, just how Wayne Wang adapted it, the compromises made to make it an easier read for the mass market, I feel pained for what might have been if it could retain its mahjong-inspired approach.

Or even if were more radical in its reinvention. With both films fresh in mind, I can’t help but think Wang’s approach to fixing Dim Sum would’ve also benefitted The Joy Luck Club. The Chew family’s story isn’t without its own problems, yet it is a quiet, contemplative film which emphasizes much the same message as here, and is stronger for lacking the aspirations towards generational epic tragedy and intrusive attempts to rigidly direct the audience’s reaction. Then again, while narrowing the focus to an examination of June and Suyuan’s relationship in absentia (or any of the three other mother/daughter pairings, they’ve all the capacity to carry a movie on their own) might do the film itself some favors, it wouldn’t do the film’s cultural impact a whit of good. For all my complaining, I will still claim The Joy Luck Club a vital film deserving its induction because the 20th century American mainstream saw so few stories like this, much less eight interlinked stories illustrating the breadth of experience for Asian-American immigrant families. It becomes a messy work to my mind, a lesser version of what it was on the page and what a smarter adaptation could have been, but it is necessary to highlight and champion its inclusion amongst the canon all the same. We can only call our film culture (and indeed our culture overall) healthy when works of highest quality can and do spring from all corners of the country, all walks of life, all perspectives. The more Asian-American stories we see in films with proper widespread exposure, the less impactful it is when someone sits down to edit one and finds something has gone wrong.

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And we once again come to the end of our time together here on Registering the Registry. I’m aware my opinion on The Joy Luck Club is not a popular one amongst those who truly love the film, so I’d like to hear your thoughts — where do Wang and Tan’s strengths and weaknesses lie with this one? Lay out your thoughts below, and look forward to next week’s feature. Documentarian Lourdes Portillo received news of her uncle’s sudden death one summer morning, and traveled down to Chihuahua, Mexico to investigate (and film) the complicated tangle of familial intrigue around the mystery. We’re looking at The Devil Never Sleeps from 1994, which is unfortunately only available for rental through Vimeo at a $20 price tag on quick turnaround.. Fortunately, I’ve got myself a DVD copy, so I’ll see you for that next time!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter, and accepts donations on ko-fi.

I write on the National Film Registry.