Few would have predicted best seller-dom for a 1989 first novel about four chattering Chinese aunties living in San Francisco who have met every week since 1949 to play mah-jongg and trade stories about themselves and their families. But The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan — who was born in 1952 in Oakland, Calif, after her parents immigrated to America — struck a responsive chord that transcended geography and cut to the heart of parent-child relationships in pungent, lyrical prose.
Tan's book is so uniquely satisfying that you root for this two hour-plus film, with a script by Tan and Ron Bass (Rain Man), to match it. At best, this warmly acted and deeply felt movie is an earnest approximation of the book. At worst, it's a plodding oversimplification. Director Wayne Wang strains for an epic solemnity that seems alien to the subtle approach he took in Chan Is Missing and Dim Sum to bring out the humor and complexity of cultural assimilation.
Like the book, the film is a series of vignettes. It alternates the often traumatic experiences of the aunties (Kieu Chinh, France Nuyen, Tsai Chin and Lisa Lu) as female chattel in China with the present-day problems of their Americanized daughters (Ming-Na Wen, Lauren Tom, Rosalind Chao and Tamlyn Tomita). Ming-Na Wen plays June, an anti-traditionalist who is asked to replace her deceased mother, Suyuan (Kieu Chinh), at the mah-jongg table. June positively squirms when the aunties tell her that her two half sisters — believed lost as newborns — have been found in China and that she must go there and tell them that their mother is dead.
In flashbacks, history is relived. We watch Auntie Suyuan abandon her twin babies by a roadside during the invasion of Kweilin, Auntie Ying Ying drown her infant son to spite her cruel husband, Auntie Lindo escape a sexless childhood marriage to a fat mama's boy and Auntie An Mei stand by as her mother, a concubine, dies. Four different actresses play the aunties in their youth, which sometimes keeps us struggling to keep the stories straight.
That we do is a tribute to the power of Tan's theme about the miscommunication that separates one generation from another. "Don't you know the power you have over me?" asks a daughter whose seldom-seen vulnerability brings a rare smile to her mother's lips. They've made a connection, however perverse. The Joy Luck Club hits hardest when it bypasses sentiment to ponder the inextricable mix of love and pain that comes with the ties that bind.