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Some subtitles, an ethnic group, no stars — yet The Joy Luck Club proved a surprise hit in America. Alan Morrison talks to director Wayne Wang and producer Amy Tan, on whose novel the film is based, about mothers and daughters.
Chinese characters in English language films have never had a good deal. Gangsters. chefs. inscrutable Confucius types — whose stunted grammar and vocabularly either indicate low intellect or, at the other extreme. age-old wisdom. For the women it is worse: ser 'ants and prostitutes. When Nancy Kwan became the object of William Holden‘s affections in 1960‘s The World ()fSuzie Wong, Western males started seeing ()riental females as easy-option sex symbols. The role had been created the year before on the West End stage by Shanghai—born, RADA- trained actress Tsai Chin; now Chin makes a screen appearance — older and most certainly wiser — as Lindo. one ofa quartet of Chinese mothers in The Joy Luck Club, an adaptation of Amy Tan‘s best- selling novel. The film intertwines stories ofthese four women and their American-born daughters around a single dinner party before one of the girls leaves on ajourney to China. It is richly textured. full of individual pain and community happiness; the Suzie Wong stereotype is banished to the prejudices of history.
‘I resist the notion that, simply because I’m Chinese-American, I have to write something that deals exclusively with
that culture and that sociology.’ Amy Tan
At times, however, the film bullies us into an emotional response, heavily underlining bouts of on- screen weeping with heart-tugging melodies on the soundtrack. The worst excesses of the unsubtle hand of Hollywood may have been held in check. but there is still a sense that cinematic transfer has blunted some ofthe sharper insights of Tan‘s novel. The book is better at defining the cultural gulf between these Chinese mothers and their American daughters. where language itself can be a weapon or a bonding agent. The mothers struggle to express and explain their complexities in faltering English; the daughters are too ‘proud‘ to speak Chinese. unless, like returning to their given forenames, it is now fashionable to do so.
By the standards of the older generation. the girls have grown complacent in their soft middle-class lifestyle, but the mothers‘ disappointment is itself confused. because the level of comfort their offspring now enjoy was always pan of their own dreams. The reality of America, regarded by the mothers as a
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The Joy Luck Club: “richly textured, full of individual pain and community happiness'
paradise that is everything China was not. is seen through an entirely different set of eyes by the daughters. who have developed aspirations oftheir own. The filmmakers. however. always intended to play down some of the more specifically ethnic aspects, pushing aside the ‘immigrant experience‘ in favour of concentrating more fully on the universal turmoil of a mother/daughter relationship.
‘I resist the notion,’ says Tan. ‘that. simply because I‘m Chinese American. I have to write something that deals exclusively with that culture and that sociology. I wasn't trying to write something that would represent Chinese-American daughters. let alone all Americans or all mothers and daughters. I wrote something that I thought would never get published because it was so specifically about what happened to me. it surprised me. once it was published. when people said. “This is my story, and my mother's Jewish" or “This is my story. and my mother‘s German“. I think that tends to be a quality of this type of fiction: if you write stories that have specificity, you end up writing something that is universally true. quite by accident.
‘There was. at one time. somebody who was considering optioning the book and bringing in a Chinese director who was not American. and I had great concerns about this becatise l saw it as an American story. It‘s an American story which has an immigrant under-layer to it. The idea was to find somebody who had a great deal ofempathy for the book's perspective of the world . . . I would have been concerned if the director had been somebody who had no experience. not necessarily in Chinese culture. but in Chinese—American culture.‘
Wayne Wang was. therefore. the perfect choice. Born in Hong Kong. but a film and television graduate of the California College of Arts and Crafts. Wang settled in San Francisco‘s Chinatown and
channelled his talents into highlighting the 5, community‘s problems. The immediate result was
1982‘s Chan ls illlsshrq which was important. not only for the accessibility of its comedy plot. but because it was made with an entirely Asian— American cast and crew. His second feature. Dim Sum ( l 984) brought his name to an international audience and was nominated for a BAFTA Award as best foreign film. He followed this with a commercial thriller. Slum Dame (1987). a screwball comedy. liar A Bowl ()f'leu t l 989). and an experimental noir. life Is Cheap . . . Bu! 'Ibilel Paper Is Expensive ( I991). It was. however. Dim Sum, with its focus on a Chinese widow and her American-born daughter. that most clearly showed his credentials for taking the helm of The Joy lurk Club.
‘I sympathise with the daughters . . .
I keep telling people that the Linda/Waverley story is almost exactly the same as me and my lather.’ Wayne Wang
‘l sympathise with the daughters.‘ Wang admits. ‘and I can identify with Waverley a lot. I keep telling people that the Undo/Waverley story is almost
exactly the same as me and my father. My father is a
very strong man. a very quiet man. who never says anything directly. and I've had to deal with that all my life . . . As for the Chinese and American thing. these two are opposites. and I'm always trying to find a balance between the two; but that balance is constantly changing because the opposites are constantly changing. There‘s a scene in Chart Is Missing. where a guy talks about an apple pie that‘s made by a Chinese restaurant. where the pastry is made from a Chinese dough, so while it taste of apple pie. it also tastes Chinese. I love eating that apple pie.‘
The Joy Luck Club opens a! the Edinburgh Cameo and Glasgow ()(lemz m1 I’l‘irhrv 8 .‘l/il'll.
The List 8— 2l April I994 13