“In America, I will have a daughter just like me. But over there, nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there, nobody will look down on her because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there, she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow.”
I read a recent post on another blog about Ming-na Wen which brought to mind her role as June Woo in the wonderful film adaption of the Amy Tan novel, The Joy Luck Club. The novel’s pedigree is impeccable. Published by G.P. Putnam & Sons in 1989, the book was on the New York Times best seller list for more than six months, it has been translated into more than 35 languages, and has sold in excess of 30 million copies world wide since its original publication more than 20 years ago.
After Amy Tan had a lengthy three day meeting with her co-screenplay writer Ron Bass and movie director Wayne Wang, after they hashed out how the novel would be adapted into a movie, the three of them made a pact that they would not sell the book’s movie rights, or the screenplay, unless the studio gave them total creative control, meaning they would control the screenplay, the choice of location and actors, the filming, the editing, all the way up to and including the final cut.
They got their deal from Hollywood Pictures, with Oliver Stone listed as Executive Producer. And what a sweet deal it was; beyond being granted total creative control, which is nearly impossible to get in the movie industry, in addition to their screenwriting credits, Amy and Ron were also given co-producer status which likely gave them participation in the film’s profits.
Basically, The Joy Luck Club might be called a multi-generational film about the relationships between mothers and daughters. Simplifying even further, this film has been called a chick-flick, a woman’s picture, or a tear jerker about immigrant Chinese women and their American-born daughters. But while these labels are not incorrect, they’re over-simplifications. I mean who says multi-generational family films are limited to Chinese people. And where is it written that family relationships are restricted to mothers and daughters.
In my view, the book and the film transcend those arbitrary labels. I believe that relationships are universal and are not limited by ethnicity nor gender. All of you who are reading this were once children, and many of us today are parents, so I am sure you can connect with this film.
Think about this. By the time you are well into your thirties, your parents are already middle aged or about to become elderly. How much do you know about their childhoods, or their teen years, their relationships with their parents, or even their adult years before you were born to them?
Have you ever thought about how your parents’ life experiences have influenced you, and will continue to do so throughout your own life?
JLC is about four Chinese women who left hardships, travails, and tragedies behind them as they arrived in San Francisco prior to the Chinese Revolution in the late 1940’s. They found friendships, then husbands and began families in their new adopted country, America. As each of them had daughters, they struggled to impart to their daughters their experiences and wisdom, their hopes, and their good wishes.
But daughters (and sons) can be rebellious. Daughters as well as sons can opt to not really put too much stock into what Mom said about what happened in another country, a very different country than their present-day America, and from a time so very long ago. And out of this comes parent-child friction and resentment.
The four older women met regularly to share stories, to commiserate, to enjoy food, and to play the ancient game of Mah-jongg where a turn of the tiles might bring joy or luck. They called themselves the Joy Luck Club.
The frame work of the film is that all of the remaining members of the Joy Luck Club (Lindo, Ying Ying, and An Mei and their extended families, met for the occasion of a send-off party for June (Ming-na Wen – below) …
… the daughter of Suyuan who recently died (four months before the film begins). June, who has been asked to replace her mother Suyuan as the 4th at the mah-jongg table, will be off to China to meet her older twin half sisters for the first time. Until very recently, June did not not know she had these siblings. And those girls in China …
… had no idea about their real mother Suyuan, who long ago, was forced to abandon them as infants by the roadside while fleeing from the war, because she thought she was so sick that she was going to die, and no one would save infants unlucky enough to have a dead mother beside them. To our modern sensibilities, this seems surreal, and beyond possibility, but in the context of the times and place, we can and do understand it even though we might not support it. Only Suyuan doesn’t die. She’s found and taken to a hospital and saved. Eventually she makes it to the new world, America. And the twins don’t die either.
The other JLC members have their own stories, and secrets, about their relationships with their own mothers and their early lives (pre-America). Some are tragic, or heartbreaking. Some discuss bravery, sacrifice, and devotion. And some of these stories, still simmering years later, still impact the relationship between these now senior citizen women and their modern American daughters.
Through the use of flashbacks and stories told and stories heard, we learn about each of these women and the 4 modern now adult American Chinese women who are the daughters of these Chinese immigrants. We see them and learn of their struggles as children and as adults. We also see the remaining now elderly Chinese immigrants as children, or young adults in China …
… and we are told of their struggles and misfortunes. We learn of the hardships that their own mothers had to endure.
But the wonder of the film is how well these stories fit together. How one flows into the next one or how it so smoothly followed the one that came before it. Yes, this is contrived to a degree, but this is only a two hour eighteen minutes movie, not a daily television drama series that has been running for years.
Why am I bringing you a look at this 1993 film now? As stated above, I recently read a blog article about Ming-na Wen, but the reality is that JLC was a film that was beautifully made, is easy to connect with, and there are a number of Asian beauties on screen in the film.
But those are not the only reasons. As I said above, the stories and emotions are universal. We’ve all fought with our parents or our children. Who we are now has a direct connection to the experiences of our parents. Who our children become has a direct relationship with who we are.
There are many memorable quotes from the film which I could share with you, to give you a feel for the film beyond the beautiful actresses. Try this one first:
An-Mei played by Lisa Lu, says to her daughter Rose who is played by Rosalind Chao:
“I tell you the story because I was raised the Chinese way. I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, and to eat my own bitterness. And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way. Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl, and I was born to my mother and I was born a girl, all of us like stairs, one step after another, going up, going down, but always going the same way … “
Or this exchange between Suyuan played by Kieu Chinh and her then 9 year old daughter June:
June : You want me to be someone I’m not. I’ll never be the kind of daughter that you want me to be.
Suyuan: Only two kinds of daughter: obedient or follow-own-mind. Only one kind of daughter could live in this house: obedient kind.
June: Then I wish I wasn’t your daughter. I wish you weren’t my mom.
Suyuan: Too late to change this.
After fighting for what seems like hours, we find Lindo played by Tsai Chin and her daughter Waverly at the beauty parlor on the eve of Waverly’s wedding, her second marriage. How about this passionate statement to Lindo from Waverly who is portrayed by the stunning Tamlyn Tomita:
Waverly Jong: “You don’t know, you don’t know the power you have over me. One word from you, one look, and I’m four years old again, crying myself to sleep, because nothing I do can ever, ever please you…”
After a moment, a smile began to edge slowly onto Lindo’s face, and then she said, “Now … now you make me happy …”
The hurt and the regret melted away into smiles and laughter because in that moment the anger crystallized into love when the mother heard the magic words that her daughter was still trying her best to please her.
And one last one between June played as an adult by Ming-Na Wen, and her Mom, Suyuan:
June Woo: I’m just sorry that you got stuck with such a loser, that I’ve always been so disappointing.
Suyuan: What you mean disappoint? Piano?
June Woo: Everything: my grades, my job, not getting married, everything you expected of me.
Suyuan: Not expect anything! Never expect! Only hope! Only hoping best for you. That’s not wrong, to hope.
Beautifully performed, and beautifully written. A very worthwhile way to spend a few hours. I’ll close with this. I took my Mom to see this film in 1993. At the end of the film, June meets her long lost twin half sisters for the first time on the pier in Shanghai.
June can speak some Putonghua (Mandarin). The twins cannot speak English. But the emotionality of this meeting was so very strong and powerful. June had to tell them that their Mother had died which they didn’t know thanks to Lindo’s act of signing a letter as Suyuan, thereby concealing Suyuan’s death. Nearly everyone in the movie theater must have teared up. I mean you could hear it clearly, a hundred times over, across the filled theater. A few days ago, when I watched this film again, 17 years after seeing it that one and only time, once more my own tears flowed.