Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Joy Luck Club Film Review


The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I rejoin for another movie title that began its life between a book cover for our parallel post series1. Luckily, we’ve reached this point, the end of the dreaded month of March (it and I don’t like each other much), the first quarter of 2016 and winter, none worse for wear. Well, at least for some of us in the northern hemisphere. Once more, we’ll examine the first novel of a noted author that launched a literary career, and so typical for we Americans.

Amy Tan was born in the United States in 1952, a few years after her parents immigrated from China. Like all second generation children, she had to come to terms with what it means to be both American, and, in this case, Chinese. Reaching her true calling as a writer, instead of the career pianist or doctor her parents desired, she published her first short story in ’86. Three years later she released her first book to wide acclaim, a collection of short stories called The Joy Luck Club, “…which the critics reviewed as a novel.”

Credit my blogging partner for suggesting another involving tale relating the foreign lands and culture of those of our fellow countrymen who share its immigrant history. Ms. Tan’s own family serving as a source for the stories of mothers and daughters both unique and prevalent among those living in the U.S. Rachel will peruse the national best seller while I review the 1993 adaptation to film by Wayne Wang. Get your tissues ready, just sayin’. The wordy one’s book review can be found here:

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

A brief synopsis of the film: June, the daughter of Suyuan, has been invited to join the regular mahjong2 foursome made up of her recently deceased mother’s closest friends. The female fountainheads of four immigrant Chinese families who survived unspeakable hardship to reach these shores. Forming what they call the “Joy Luck Club” to meet, eat dim sum, and play the traditional Chinese game of tiles and strategy. And talk about their hopes.

Their pain-filled stories a source of mystery and ultimately insight for each of their American-born daughters learning to cope with their lives here. Along with the heritage their mothers seek to pass on, the normal rivalry of cultures and friends always just below the surface. Not to mention the customary and at times monumental, binds of living as mothers and daughters. Their individual tales the basis of their histories and relationships in the film.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

This one moment would decide for my whole life whether fear would rule or I would. I decided. Underneath I knew who I was. I promised myself never to forget.

Interesting to return to The Joy Luck Club for only my second viewing, and first time with its source. Daresay it went beyond the familiar, my TV and movie-filled childhood always at hand. I’ve Bruce Lee to thank for that. Sure, like near anyone else my age here, I was exposed to the far-flung land of China through the popular arts. None so engaging as Lee did with the martial arts via TV’s Green Hornet in my formative years, which spurred a fascination for all things Chinese as a youth3.

So, even if this story had nary a fist thrown or round-house kick planted (with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Melinda May [Ming-Na Wen] depicting daughter June), it seemed as comfortable as all those Asian films viewed since then.


I’d have to agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment some twenty-odd years ago that, ““The Joy Luck Club” comes rushing off the screen in a torrent of memories, as if its characters have been saving their stories for years, waiting for the right moment to share them.” My own mother’s tendency relating family stories to her sons registered with me as a child. So much so, Wayne Wang‘s distillation, with Ms. Tan’s and Ronald Bass screenwriting assistance, seemed a natural connection. Even with my Run Run Shaw years4.

The basis of The Joy Luck Club universal, yet so distinct given its rich cast and the rare case a major movie studio gave a platform to tell their own story5. Scarcer when a tale matches up a wonderfully packed narrative, one broaching the cultural, social, and historic so typical of migrant tales, let alone being primarily and thoroughly Asian. One that Hollywood notoriously either overlooked or tacitly stereotyped into background or villain roles, and blithely portrayed for years of mass American consumption.

the joy luck club

Really amazing to see something like this make it to the big screen. No doubt helped by the success of Amy Tan’s novel, aided by executive producer Oliver Stone (at the height of his movie-making clout in the ’90s) and brought to western audiences6. Yes, it’s another multi-generational account, but without the likes of Mario Puzo’s Silician gangster, or Stone’s more notorious7. Offering extensive flashbacks to life in China that still impact the transplanted in this country, and the complex relationships we all take for granted.

Throwing a light on what has been portrayed for the longest as “exotic and mysterious” to many in America; revealing perhaps something more remarkable…what we all have in common: family, in all its flavors.

The Joy Luck Club had a exceptional cast to tell the tale of four mothers and their now adult “Americanized” daughters. And I say that because it was filled by Asian performers most TV and movie viewers of the last few years have seen at one time or another, but can’t put a name to. Across many programs and feature films — only rarely given a chance to shine, even today. Tsai Chin (Casino Royale), France Nuyen (St. Elsewhere), Lisa Lu (The Last Emperor), and Kieu Chinh (China Beach) evoking the tale’s wellsprings.


Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita (The Karate Kid Part II), Lauren Tom (Futurama), and Rosalind Chao (Star Trek: TNG) characterizing and accepting the exceptional histories of their frustrated moms. Add to this the charismatic Chao Li Chi (The Prestige), the great Victor Wong (The Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China), and villainous turns by Michael Paul Chan (The Closer) and Russell Wong (Vanishing Son), and others too many to mention, you can see why a troupe and film like this stood out.

wayne-wangOf course, given I’m Y-chromosome-challenged, retaining the many relationships on paper and in my head via the novel’s multiple vignettes and flashbacks, made it a tad difficult. Yet on film, my familiarity with this company of actors portraying the book’s roles, and that each first-person voiceover was now tied as an offshoot to June’s meeting her long-lost sisters, I thought Wayne Wang’s translation of the backstories to celluloid the better treatment.

There’s no lack of heartbreaking moments in the film or uplift in its presentation. Just goes to show that no one can read your mind…’cept your mother. And yes, the pull of relationship and melodrama, in the context of suffering and sacrifice, with a largely female cast, is usually more closely enjoyed with those of the opposite sex. Yet, I’m as guilty as the next guy…girl…whatever…in the warmth of its glow when I actually give something like this a chance. There, I said it.

“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.”

When my dear spouse asked what tandem Rachel and I were reviewing this month, she gave me a quizzical look upon learning it was The Joy Luck Club. “Not your usual type of film or book.”, she said. At first, baffled, I tilted my head accordingly. Right and wrong, I thought in reaction. Sci-fi, horror, and action-thrillers have taken up most of my reading and watching time through the decades. But, what then explains my When Harry Met Sally, The Notebook, or Boys On The Side episodes, I now wondered.


Perchance the fact I’m living with a mother (my wife) and daughter in the same house as I write this, periodically refereeing their occasional clashes (and realizations), is partly an explanation. Possibly, that the film is loaded with heart, filled with a sense of life and understanding, and still remains entertaining, also has something to do with it. Maybe, just maybe, it comes down to what this third-generation Mexican-American can relate to, and Amy Tan’s story, by way of film, certainly did that. Pass the Kleenex while you’re at it.

Parallel Post Series

  1. I screwed up by going out of the order this month than was our agreed upon schedule; maybe looking forward to this “April” title, I mistakenly jumped ahead. 
  2. The early quote by June’s auntie, “Now Chinese mahjong very tricky. You have to watch out what everybody throw out…and keep all this in your head.”, envisages the tale. 
  3. I’d follow suit with Japan and other Asian cultures a few years later
  4. Admit it, what made something like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon special is not so much its flying fight choreography than the film’s character relationships. 
  5. The trio of Tan, Bass, and Wang formed an alliance that resulted in the rare occurrence the book’s movie rights would not be sold without their total creative control (including screenplay, cast, locations, and final cut) over its screen adaptation. 
  6. “Siskel picked it as the seventh of the top ten movies of 1993, while Roger Ebert picked it as the fifth of his own top ten movies of 1993.” ~ Wikipedia 
  7. Year of the Dragon (1985) would put Oliver Stone and Wayne Wang in opposing corners; they’d eventually reconcile their differences to make this film. 

16 Responses to “The Joy Luck Club Film Review”

  1. ruth

    Beautiful review Michael! I definitely teared up when I saw The Joy Luck Club years ago, it’s especially relatable to me even though I wasn’t brought up in the States. The cast was indeed wonderful but the storytelling and the well-handled flashbacks made an impression to me. I’ve always like a film that exposes a certain culture. In fact, I just reviewed a documentary that offers an insight into ‘arranged marriage’ in India, done in the most delightful and funny way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rachel

    As usual an absolutely stellar review. So good, in fact, that I might actually go on back and finish the movie. This is my first attempt watching it and I only made it halfway through. I can’t think now which of our previous films was also like this for me (I remember clearly that there was one in the past year or so) but this movie seemed to be bringing out all the parts of the book I didn’t like and leaving what I did like off the screen. That can happen with adaptations sometimes and it’s a shame this one just was not getting me where the book did.

    Speaking of, I thought this a very good adaptation. Interesting to see another one in which the writer was so intimately involved. I feel like you really “see” the book come alive when that is the case. So, yeah, it was adapting to my taste but still it’s very faithful.

    I agree that it’s pretty amazing to have had a big film filled with Asian actors telling their own stories. It’s amazing that, all these years later, we still do not see enough of this (and not just for Americans of East Asian descent, Hollywood DO BETTER!).

    Watching this brought back so many 90s memories. Talk about a movie rooted in its time. It was so dated but in a way that charmed me.

    By the way, I’m intensely embarrassed to say I didn’t recognize The Calvary until you mentioned it and then, of course, the actor’s awesome turn as Melinda May came flooding into my brain. She’s my favorite character on that show. I’m a couple seasons behind and obviously need to catch up if Melinda May is sneaking by me.

    Speaking of characters I love; I had a huge crush on Russell Wong due to Vanishing Son and, in memory and respect for teen Rachel, it broke my heart to see him as a villain. I just about died when I saw who he was playing. 😦 😦 😦 Please picture 15yo Rachel desperately in love with the awesome hero of Vanishing Son with no internet available for looking up other ways to find him. I gobbled up anything Premiere or Entertainment Weekly published about him (back when I subscribed to magazines) and probably teared up when there was no more Vanishing Son to enjoy. Do you see how adult Rachel absolutely could not accept Wong as a villain? Ah, the agony!!! I’m getting upset all over again!

    Thanks, as always, for a great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      I was wondering if the focal change of novel to movie would cause you some disruption. I agree with your point that such things happen fairly often. I can see it being bad, if one read the book before seeing the film. Good point. I came to this from the opposite perspective (movie then book), so my experience with it illuminating.

      Good to learn the author could put more of her stamp on the adaptation, as well as getting such a rich cast of performers to bring it to life. Funny you should mention “Hollywood DO BETTER!” At last weekend’s L.A. Times Festival of Books (remember that?), we attended a great roundtable:

      “Covering Diversity in Hollywood: Roundtable with L.A. Times Film & TV Reporters”

      It was a well-attended and thought-provoking session that covered a good deal of this, even pointing out that Asian*, along with Latinos and women, likely get short-shrift in such conversations since many times it seems to be limited to a “black” and “white” dichotomy. Wish you could have been there.

      Oh, great to hear you are a fan of Melinda “The Calvary” May. The spouse just said last night while watching the show, “…she has the best lines, and delivery, in the program.” As well as being someone who watched that rating-challenged pleasure, “Vanishing Son”. Russell Wong a favorite of mine, too.

      Great title (to accidentally move up in the order) by you. Many thanks, Rachel. 🙂

      * And don’t get me started on how John Lone Joan Chen were robbed of acting nominations for their splendid work in “The Last Emperor” by the vaunted Academy!



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