Aug. 17, 2005
The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Grade: 43/100

Director: Wayne Wang
Stars: Tamlyn Tomita, Ming-Na, Rosalind Chao

What it's about. The petty trials and tribulations of three attractive young Chinese-American women are contrasted with the more momentous travails of their mothers, when they were of similar age and living in China.

How others will see it. Anglos will find it difficult to keep track of the different characters, which involve eight different women, most of whom are played by two actresses (or even three, in the case of Lindo) of different ages. Sometimes, the mother of the mother is also presented, or even (in the case of Rose) the mother of the mother of the mother. Perhaps they should wear numbers on their backs. You can't tell the players without a program, and a family chart.

While the story as a whole may cause headaches and require patience from Anglos, most people will be intrigued by some of the individual vignettes. These serve to demonstrate the former courage and nobility of the Aunties, now reduced to wise busy-bodies. A little girl (Lindo) is held captive as a bride to another child, then is expected to produce children of her own while her husband appears to be pre-pubescent. Two adult twins expect to meet their mother, and are instead greeted by their grown half-sister, who bears bad news.

The latter is the story I most appreciated, and the director was shrewd to close with it. Other vignettes are less effective: Lena (Lauren Tom) is wed to a smug miser, Rose (Rosalind Chao) becomes meek to the astonishment of hubbie Andrew McCarthy.

How I felt about it. In all cases, Auntie knows best, the wisdom of her ways sometimes concealed within an aloof and demanding exterior. In this world, men are more ceremonial than necessary. They exist largely as an excuse for their special other to learn her true identity, upon the coaxing of Mother knows best, who has lived through far worse.

Given the horror stories of the Aunties during their formative adulthood in merciless China, the fate of their comparatively wealthy daughters seems pale in comparison:

Mom was held captive as a virgin bride; daughter can't win Mom's approval of her dimwitted but hunky and obliging Anglo boyfriend.

Mom was shamed by her own mother's status as a concubine, and is further traumatized by her mother's dramatic suicide. Daughter lives in wealth and luxury but has grown distant from her earnest husband.

Mom was half-dead from dysentary when forced to abandon her two infant daughters. Daughter is upset when her own mother appears to side with selfish hottie Waverly.

Mother drowns her infant to escape marriage to an abusive and selfish womanizer. Daughter marries a humorously arrogant man who manipulates his wife into paying for half of his ice cream.

The struggles of the daughters are unimportant compared to the former perils of their mothers, and the daughters must overcome their own pettiness to discover maternal wisdom. But the patchwork quilt of characters and stories has no other binding themes. Mother Knows Best is neither as relevatory nor as moving as the writer intends. Perhaps a better title would be, Past Bad Luck Club. Now, the Aunties lives are so flat that their only concern is the daughter's spiritual awakening. Perhaps it is time to let go instead.