The Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang, 1993): USA
Reviewed by Kelvin Matthews. Viewed on DVD.
Through all the joy, all the sadness, a love between a daughter and mother is unconditional. For she is there in good times and bad, and rather she agrees, or disagrees she is always your biggest supporter and fan in life, and only wants to see you happy regardless of the sacrifices she has to make in her own life. She loves you, and you will always be her child, her baby and the reason she wants to see the sun rise each morning, and although you may not always agree she will always be “by your side” and always want to see you happy in your life and your life being a life fulfilled. Sometimes we don’t know the sacrifices our mother’s and families have made just to see us live another day and grow into the adults that we have become. This piece is dedicated to Sizhu and her mother and to all of those mother and daughters who have a special bond that miles, culture and personal decisions in life can’t ever tear apart.
Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” is a beautifully written novel and the film by the same name is simply no exception with all of the spirit, love, pain and sacrifice that four Chinese mothers endured to immigrate to America in order to make a better life for them and their daughters, as the film focuses on the relationships between Chinese woman and their Chinese American daughters. This film is the spirit of the fore mentioned as reflected in Chinese culture and society, but it holds lessons in which all cultures can learn from, and as Amy Tan noted it is not just meant for Chinese culture.
The Joy Luck Club is one of the most complete and in depth films I have seen as told from the perspective of four Chinese mothers and their daughters in a series of flashbacks and vignettes. It is a beautifully conceived and effectively implemented film in which screen writers Amy Tan and Ronald Bass did a beautiful job transferring to screen the equally beautiful and best selling Amy Tan novel. This film touches on the essence of a mother and daughter relationship and the spirit which makes one feel what it truly means to be alive and the meaning of living and how your mother and those who came before you have impacted your life and made you who you are. This film embodies such a relationship and truly touches your heart as the mothers try to help their daughters to understand the importance of maintaining their Chinese culture and traditions in a much more liberalUnited Stateswithout losing themselves as we see the two cultures clash.
Released in 1993, “The Joy Luck Club” is an in depth story of four women from mainland China who have immigrated to America and the city of San Francisco by overcoming the turmoil and heart ache of a war torn 1940’s China. Immigrating toAmerica, the women hope to leave a horrible past behind and to help them fulfill their dreams and hopes for themselves and their daughters. In the process they must also teach their daughters the importance of remaining themselves and their genuine self identity and not allowing their desires to fit into American culture change them, but remain themselves as well as maintaining their culture and traditions. It is a story that represents the traditional values of Chinese culture and it’s adaptation into western culture and a mother’s love which can seemingly be too over whelming at times as the daughters are made to feel as if they must be perfect in order to please their mothers.
While this film touches on a number of themes, one of the most important and touching is the importance of maintaining a sense of your own heritage and culture after immigrating to another country such asAmerica. The mother’s sections of the narrative are the cohesion to this film with each of them having two common motifs of loss and hope which is at the heart of this film and the catalyst that continuously drives this film. Another major theme which is seldom seen and used as a major part of a narrative in a film is the positive influence that a mother can have on her daughter such as the mothers trying to teach their daughters the importance of sustaining their native culture and remaining genuine, and not allowing other’s to influence, or change them into someone they are not in order to adapt, or be accepted into a new culture such as in the more liberal and free United States.
This film is unique in a number of ways, but one of the most interesting and effective is the non linear style and non Classic Hollywood structure of multiple narrative sections that are very elegantly and effectively conceived and introduced at the beginning of the film as the narrative is centered around a farewell party for Jing-Mei “June” (Ming-Na Wen) with the party working almost like a cinematic tool that helps to form an overall framing that beautifully brings all of the sections of the narrative together without confusing the audience. Another unique aspect can be found in the fact that the story is told from past to present or a form of back story and in a flashback manner. This is especially effective for not only the audience, but also in helping the daughters to understand their mother’s and grandmother’s lives inChinaand to appreciate their sacrifices.
The flashback sections of this film narrative is especially powerfully and moving to experience as their mother’s recall their memories of China and the pain and sacrificing that they and their own mother’s endured from abusive men and the horrors of rape, to being forced to be a part of a concubine and treated like someone who could only be second to a man, to being forced to use opium and an eventual suicide, to unthankful jobs they endured while making sacrifices that only a mother would make for her child while they constantly faced the threat of death with a war going on around them, but through it all they endured with grace and dignity, and because of an undying love and desire to see their daughters have a much better life then they had suffered and endured in China. This film touches every emotion and upon seeing it can make the strongest of men shed a tear and if a man is truly a man he will want to make his girlfriend, his wife’s life one in which she is safe and truly loved and taken care of and treated like an Angel.
The narration begins at the party as June is asked to sit down with her recently passed mother’s friends who are member’s of a club her mother belonged to called “The Joy Luck Club.” As she begins talking to her mother’s three friends, June begins recalling memories of her mother’s heart breaking life in China, as June seems different from the other daughters in that she is much more appreciative of her mother and her Chinese culture and seems very mature and secure in herself and her culture.
As the film and party progresses each of the remaining woman give accounts of their own lives and share memories of their lives in China through a series of flashbacks and vignettes that takes you from the past to the present, and their hopes and dreams for their daughters. June seems to be the voice of her recently passed mother and the remaining three mother’s form the framing for the narrative of this film as their narration helps to direct the audience and truly helps the audience to feel and understand the mother’s pain, suffering and their love and sacrifices for their daughters. While the remaining narration as told by the daughters is heard at a lesser extent, their impact on the film is no less effective and powerful as their characters truly make you feel what it means to be alive and thankful for your mother and for all that she has did to keep you safe, take care of you and to see your dreams come true regardless of the pain and sacrifices she has had to make.
While possibly overlooked by some, the panning shot that follows June about the room at the opening of the film is one of the most establishing and meaningful shots I have seen on film as it helps to introduce the audience to Chinese culture and the importance of family, as the panning shot is done in an uninterrupted and continued spatial motion as June welcomes those who have gathered for her farewell party. This panning shot does a beautiful job of introducing us to the characters, as well as the unity and connection that can be felt in the room through just this shot, as well as the diegetic sound of family in the room which can be heard in the background which is a reflection of the importance of family in Chinese culture. In another scene during the opening sequence we see the camera panning from June to the three remaining mothers and members of the “Joy Luck Club” and their daughters who give the audience a scene that looks much like a family portrait, along with the look and feel of a moment of closeness and togetherness.
The different shots, camera angles and the movement of the camera throughout the film help convey a visual sense of warmth and connection and a true sense of family.
Another important use of shots can be seen in the numerous two shot sequences that are seen throughout the film and mostly in the scenes with mother and daughter. This shot is used very effectively and helps to convey a sense of space between the mother and daughter and to communicate that sense of closeness and understanding, as well as confrontations in some scenes.
One of the most important and major scenes in the film can be seen in the barber shop scene and the use of the mirror which seems to serve as a symbolic figure in the film and in many ways to act as a conscious and that which reveals when one looks into the mirror. This can especially be seen in a scene when the camera frames the daughter Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita) in front of the mirror in the barber shop. As she begins to look into the mirror her narration begins as she recalls her experience as a child chess champion and her recent relationship with her white boyfriend Rich who she has felt she has had to change herself in order to please him and realizes she cannot do it anymore. As she reflects on these things she also recalls on how powerful her mother Lindo (Tsai Chin) influence has been over her and how she always seemed to want to please her and have to be perfect.
With Lindo in the room, an entire confrontation with her mother takes place in front of a mirror that seems to represent a scene of consciousness and revelations with the mirror in some ways acting as a form of motivation as they both look into the mirror and at one another while they each speak about their past and their personal history together as mother and daughter. The mirror in many ways seem to help reflect that mother and daughter’s past and the relationship they have had as Waverly reflects on her relationship with her mother and Lindo reflects on the relationship with her mother in China. As the two argue in this scene and in other confrontations in the film the use of the medium and close ups are used to extreme effectiveness to help enhance the audience’s understanding of the characters and to truly know them and their character which is very important in being able to understand the narrative of this film. The medium shot and close up also helps to enhance convey the emotion and drama in the scene’s and the emotional and psychological effect that the scene will have on the audience.
The scene with Waverly and Lindo in the barbershop was a very important part of the film as Tan had made this aspect such an important part of her novel and eventually the film because she knew from her own experiences how important it was to not forget her own Chinese heritage and where she had come from and to remain true to herself and not to change herself in order to fit it in, or please someone else as Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita) seemed to do, as she tried to fit into the American lifestyle and act more like her American friends, instead of the beautiful genuine person she was. She instead acted like someone she was not because of her desire to be accepted and to please her white American boyfriend Rich, then trying to please her and be proud of her Chinese heritage and herself as a person.
Not until her mother told her the story of her life and the suffering, pain and sacrifices that she herself had endured to come to America so she could have a much better life did she really come to appreciate and be proud of her mother and her Chinese heritage, and really look into her own heart and find her genuine self again and the person her mother once knew. It was not until then that Waverly realized that although she never wanted to disappoint her mother that she had in fact disappointed her mother by not remaining her true and genuine self, but feeling like she had to act a certain way in order to be accepted into American society, instead of remaining herself and sustaining her heritage and culture.
One of the most powerful scenes can be found when the narrative voice of Waverly can be heard saying. “One look from her can kill me because I don’t want to disappoint her. Disappointing her is like disappointing myself.” She says this as she thinks about her mother getting her to take piano, drawing, and Chinese calligraphy classes when she was a child. When we later see her and her mother together in her condo, her mother in essences asks her why she didn’t just leave her abusive husband. Waverly replies that she did not want to disappoint her. At this moment we see the regret her mother has as she realizes the mistakes she has made in raising her and putting so much pressure on her to always please her such as with piano lessons, drawing and other things that made Waverly feel like she could not fail, or disappoint her mother. Her mother then tells her with such compassion that in essence she should have came to her and told her about her boyfriends abusive nature and thinking he was always right and treating her as less then him with his superior attitude because she wouldn’t have ever wanted her to stay with him and Waverly never would have failed her because she never wanted her in essence to be with someone like that and someone she did not truly love, or want to be with, or do anything she did not truly want to do therefore she just wants her to be happy and to never think for one moment that she could ever disappoint her because as long as she is happy and follows her heart rather she agrees, or disagrees with her she would always love her and be proud of her and to never worry about disappointing her because it is her life to live and she was very sorry for ever putting so much pressure on her and making her feel she had to be perfect and always do what she wanted her to do in order for her to truly love her.
Another major and important scene can be seen in the flashbacks as Ann Mei’s (Lisa Lu) mother played by Vivian Wu does an amazing job of conveying the struggle and pain she endured through an abusive and cheating husband, and the struggle to survive and keep Ann Mei alive although she seemed to be slowly dying herself. Her performance is simply one of the best I have seen on film and is one of the most moving sections of the narrative that truly touches your heart and helps to set the mood and mise en scene throughout the remainder of the film.
The Joy Luck Club is a story held in culture and unending ties that gives ones life meaning and place to belong and a home that you can always come back to. It is a story which teaches as well as moves your heart, as it teaches us that life is about following your own heart, your own destiny and always remaining the person you are no matter where life leads you because by following your heart you will always be happy and leave this life without any regrets and although family may not always agree with you, they are family and will always be there for you and love you. For a life without regret is a life well lived and a life complete, and a mother’s love is never ending, for you are her child and the reason she wants to see you happy and the sun rise.