I watched The Joy Luck Club the other night and I was pleasantly surprised to find a movie nearly as good as the book original. I suppose that I might be partial to short vignettes with a more general coming together point and this movie does it very skillfully. The movie centers around four mothers—all who immigrated to America from China—who play mahjong together in San Francisco, and their grown daughters who face unique challenges as Asian-Americans.
Amy Tan is arguably one of America’s most famous Chinese-American writers. A lot of her writing focuses on the relationship between traditional Chinese mothers living in the United States and their Americanized daughters. She draws inspiration from her own life and that of her own mother—Tan’s mother left an abusive husband and three daughters behind in Shanghai when she moved to the United States.
Tan’s mother’s story seems to serve as baseline for the film The Joy Luck Club, which follows the book accurately (Tan served as the screenwriter for the film, as well). The four mothers each have heartbreaking stories about leaving China—one leaves her twin baby girls under a tree during the World War II, another’s own mother kills herself after being raped and forced to marry a rich man, the third has to escape a strange marriage to a twelve-year-old boy and the last mother is married to an abusive man who has open extramarital affairs. The Chinese stories are beautifully shot and beautifully costumed, and, while I don’t know China, more transporting than most movies I can name.
The movie focuses on Jing-Mei “June” Woo (Ming-Na Wen) whose mother has just died. June never thought that she lived up to her mother’s standards because she couldn’t play the piano well as a child and didn’t pursue an extraordinary career as an adult. Her mother’s friends, some of whom June wouldn’t call friends, have similar communication issues with their mother. June’s nemesis, Waverly, was a chess champion as a child and now is about to marry her boyfriend. Her friend, Lena, is her husband’s secretary, but also trapped in a marriage that demands full financial equality. The last daughter, Rose, marries a white man, but then tries to please him to an extent that she loses herself.
Although the movie received positive reviews, some were disappointed with the movie’s portrayal of Asian men. There aren’t very many sympathetic male characters in the movie at all—white or Asian—besides perhaps June’s father. Like in Tan’s other stories, most of the men in the movie are abusive, adulterers or neglectful. Even the positive male characters aren't fleshed out fully. While this wouldn’t necessarily be problematic in a movie solely portraying white men, there aren’t many Asian representations in popular culture to counteract these stereotypes.