The Joy Luck Club

(Wayne Wang, USA, 1993)


This is a disarming film. Rarely has a movie so skilfully yoked together the trademarks of a certain brand of art cinema with the contents of soap opera, without the slightest sign of strain or unease. The emotional impact of the movie is double barrelled: the understated, minimal style of the Japanese master Ozu used in the service of a story of unbridled passions.

Adapted from a much-loved novel by Amy Tan (who co-produced and co-scripted), this is first and foremost a women's melodrama. Not all the men in it are monsters, but it is fair to say they are virtually irrelevant to every key moment of the story. What really matters is the affirmation of a bond, however painful, between mothers and daughters – and the resolution, however difficult, of the unfinished business of the heart.

The film is constructed, sometimes awkwardly, as a procession of eight fairly discrete life stories. Four young Chinese-Americans cope with modern problems of work, relationships, self-esteem; while their mothers recall rather more lurid and extreme incidents of life in a bygone China. Murder, magic, betrayal, manic depression and fantastic personal liberation all figure in this extraordinary mosaic.

Like many works of contemporary culture, Tan's novel is rather infatuated with the mythos of oral storytelling, conjuring it as an ancient survival skill for a confused modern world. Yet such narrative self-consciousness rarely translates well to the screen. Indeed, if any major element of the novel is lost in this adaptation, it is the workings of the "joy luck club" itself, the manner in which these women gather together to play games and tell tales.

Yet for all its small blemishes, this film is a resounding triumph for director Wayne Wang (Dim Sum, 1985). It is both a moving and a disturbing movie, deeply haunting insofar as it shows a form of intense, emotional directness that one craves for in daily life, but rarely finds there.

This is a film in which a mother can look straight into her daughter's soul and declare, "I see you" – which is surely one of the most beautiful dream-images of human intimacy the cinema has ever given us.

MORE Wang: Anywhere But Here, Slam Dance, Smoke, Strangers, Blue in the Face, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart

© Adrian Martin October 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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