Experiment: Take four Asian American women in 2008 who haven't seen The Joy Luck Club, and see what they think about it fifteen years after its original release.
The idea was partially inspired by David Henry Hwang's introduction to a new paperback edition of C.Y. Lee's novel Flower Drum Song. Rodger and Hammerstein's Broadway adaptation Flower Drum Song spawned the first ever Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian American cast, though it was criticized by many in the Asian American community for its representation of Chinatown and ethnicity. But in his 2002 essay, Hwang writes that, for him, seeing the film many decades later, there's something valuable and empowering in it that you could never have seen originally because everyone was blinded by the exotification debate.
Enter The Joy Luck Club. Different time period, similar stigmas.
On September 10th, 1993, Wayne Wang's The Joy Luck Club hit American theaters. Produced by Oliver Stone, The Joy Luck Club marked a landmark of sorts. It was the rare chance to see an all-Asian American cast in a Hollywood studio production. The film not only went on to be a box office breakout -- $32 million in 1993 (or 55 million in 2008 dollars); plus, it made the money starting from three screens and expanding to just 600 screens, making it an art house phenomenon -- but it was also universally praised by American critics. It scores 84 on Metacritic (falling into the Universal Acclaim category) and boasts a stunning 90% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Siskel & Ebert both placed The Joy Luck Club on their top 10 lists of the year, alongside Schindler's List, The Piano, and Age of Innocence. Amy Tan and Ronald Bass were nominated for a Writers Guild Award for Best Screenplay.
On the flip side, there were the haters. More specifically, the Asian American haters, who accused the book and film of being Orientalist and whitewashed, relying on tired stereotypes that perpetuated the foreign mystique of Asian American women. (Not to mention caricaturizing Asian men as misogynistic oppressors). Over the years, there has been a love-hate relationship with Amy Tan within the community. The backlash is still strong, but at the same time, 2007 and 2008 witnessed Joy Luck Club revivals in theater (East West Players's Los Angeles premiere is set for November), while an adaptation of Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter is currently being performed at the San Francisco Opera.
Although The Joy Luck Club is specifically about Chinese Americans, the cast was diverse enough (Wang told The New York Times that because there were so few good roles for Asians, actresses of various Asian backgrounds would be considered and cast) that in a sense, it became the whole Asian American community on display. And when there's that much attention and weight placed on one film, especially when it's anticipated (or dreaded) as a potential (or failed) breakthrough, people will naturally have more of a visceral reaction to it.
This month, September 2008, is the fifteenth anniversary of the film The Joy Luck Club, and on the occasion of Wayne Wang's much-touted return to Asian American filmmaking (A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Princess of Nebraska), a group of APA writers takes a look at the film that first brought him into the mainstream.
The age range of the four writers -- Ada Tseng, Rowena Aquino, Ana La O', and Cathryn Chen -- span approximately a decade, and we're about half a generation behind the Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao, Lauren Tom crowd. (Technically, if you're under 32, you weren't old enough to watch the R-rated Joy Luck Club in 1993.) Two of us come from Chinese ancestry; two do not. One has read the book; most of us haven't. One was born in the US, one was born in China and moved to the US in her teens, and two were born in the Philippines but immigrated to the US as very young children. All of us tried to go in with an open mind, and none of us came out thinking Asian American men are all evil. There was no mahjong involved, but it was good times.
Ada Tseng: Alright, so even though we might have been too young to see it in theaters, The Joy Luck Club has been on VHS and DVD for almost fifteen years. I'm sure it plays on cable. We all have heard of it, so I'm curious: why haven't you guys seen it yet?
I'll start, because as an editor of an Asian/Asian American arts magazine, I admit it's a little bit ridiculous that I haven't seen the quintessential Asian American mother-daughter melodrama. I guess you could say I avoided it. I remember being assigned a chapter of The Joy Luck Club in high school and not being particularly intrigued, so I never had a strong desire to see the movie. It wasn't until I started writing for Asia Pacific Arts, that when the film started coming up in conversation I got a lot of: "You haven't seen The Joy Luck Club??"
Rowena Aquino: I was aware of it at the time, but really only marginally. I remember the hype surrounding it, but I can't recall if it was about the book, the film, or both. So I can't say it was something I avoided watching. Within my family, there was no recognition of its "importance." I guess whatever ethnic Chinese we had through my mother's side had long since been buried by Spanish culture! Even among my Asian American friends at the time, it wasn't an issue. To be honest, the whole concept of "Asian American" wasn't something that preoccupied me, let alone "Asian American" experience and/or "Asian American representation."
Ana La O': None of my family or friends really talked about it either, but I don't remember the hype around the film. I saw the drowning baby scene once when I was nine because my mom rented it. But I never went back to watch the rest of it. I did grow interested in seeing Asian American films as I got older, but I typically avoid films that include drowning babies (and synthesized musical scores).
Ada: I didn't know there were baby deaths involved, but I watched a couple clips on YouTube that were painful for a different reason. Crappy dialogue? Even when friends insisted that the emotional "low-quality crab/high-quality heart" moment was earned, I was sort of skeptical.
Cathryn Chen: I was still in China when it came out. Also, I'm an Amy Tan fan, so after I read all her books, I didn't want to watch the movie because movie adaptations tend to disappoint book fanatics. So I also wanted to avoid it, but for a different reason. I actually hadn't heard much about the film, since it was made so long ago. I mean, I was only four when it came out.
Ada: I've always felt a little guilty for not having seen it, so it's a little liberating to see you guys shrug off the question so easily. I'm wondering, though, even if you didn't feel the same pull to see the The Joy Luck Club because you're not Chinese American, do you feel a similar "guilt" over any other films?
Rowena: I would say I do feel some guilt, but not about any particular film. Maybe the Philippine American indie productions more so than the others, as if I lack that spirit to make the community visible. Overall, the fact that I haven't seen Better Luck Tomorrow, The Debut, Memoirs of a Geisha, etc. seems to say that I don't care. I can care, but based on my limited viewing experiences, the problem is that the films aren't worth caring about.
Ana: I don't know if I can say I feel guilty for missing out on certain Asian American or even Filipino American films. I saw The Debut because I had never seen a Filipino American film, but I didn't find the characters to be particularly compelling or relatable. Everyone has such distinctive life experiences, and at the end of the day, I need to be intrigued by the characters and the storyline to really want to see a film, regardless of cultural/ethnic backgrounds.
Rowena: I have to make a distinction, though, between fiction films and documentaries. I've seen way more Asian American documentary films, like the Japanese American documentaries of the internment camps, and Philippine and Vietnamese American documentaries on migration. Why? I'm not really sure. I find, in comparison to fiction film, that there's less posturing -- less "this is THE representation bar-none" mentality.
How Much Did We Cry?
Ada: Alright, so let's start with initial reactions...
Cathryn: After I watched the movie, I told my mom about it, and I had a nice conversation with her. Many scenes in the film did remind me of my relationship with my mom -- sort of bittersweet. I told her story of the chess champion [Waverly, played by Tamlyn Tomita] and how her mom was trying to get her to accomplish things so she can be proud of her daughter. This totally reminds me of my childhood. I was sent to piano class, ballet class, gymnastic class, painting/drawing class, Chinese calligraphy class, etc. My mom was hoping that I could pick up some interest in those things and excel in them.
She didn't "push" me in the obvious way, always giving me the "do whatever you like" line. "I'm not going to force you to do anything you don't like." But there were always comparisons being made between my mom's friends' daughters. Yearly piano recitals, regional and state painting and drawing competitions -- I never missed out on any. So psychologically, there was a lot of pressure. One look from her can kill me, because I don't want to disappoint her. Disappointing her is like disappointing myself -- a failure that could crumble my confidence. Like Waverly, I would try to give up things but wind up picking it back again. When I was little, I felt like I was being used, but when I got older, I did come to appreciate her efforts. Now there are trophies all around my old house for my mom to show off. And very typically, my mom also framed my Certificates of Honor and stored all in a suitcase.
Ana: I actually didn't feel particularly moved by the mother-daughter relationships. Take the first two relationships shown in the film. Mom wants me to be perfect; I can't deliver; I get angsty; I instigate a temporary fall-out; twenty years pass and then Mom and me reconcile, laughing/crying in a salon. I get what they were trying to do, but because of the short vignette format of the film, these emotions felt forced because there wasn't enough build up.
Ada: When Cathryn talks about the flood of piano and art and calligraphy lessons, the trophies in the cabinets, that all makes me laugh. I relate to that. I remember messing up at piano recitals. I won my share of calligraphy competitions. But maybe because I haven't felt the stress of it in a while, it's more comedic than anything else. There's a great scene in Jessica Yu's Ping Pong Playa when a bunch of Chinese mothers are gathered together bragging about their children -- feigned humility combined with over-the-top exaggerations.
For me, when the little girls had tantrums, it was amusing, but when those same issues emerge in the adult daughter's lives -- specifically June (Ming Na-Wen) and Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita) -- I agree with Ana. It was sort of grating to see those stories told in the context of melodrama. I was more moved by the two mothers that told their daughters they deserved better, the ones that tried to shake their daughters our of their depressive funks.
Ana: I was more moved by the flashback scenes with the drowning babies and the mother committing suicide. Maybe it's because I watched the film through a different lens. I'm more separated from the culture, so I was watching it as a dramatic entity and I wanted to be swept up in emotions that felt more real and convincing. At least the stakes seemed high enough in the flashbacks. Would a thirty year-old woman still bitch about not being good enough at piano? I didn't think so. But if she did, there must have been a lot more behind it that I never got to see.
Rowena: In retrospect, I would say I didn't have the emotional investment that the film wanted me to have. Honestly, I was more focused on the technical aspects of the film -- e.g. the layering of flashbacks, use of voiceover, slow camera movement -- which could be indicative of my detachment from the women and their stories. I understand experiences of the mothers as traumatic, but... the thing is, coming into this film, I was already anticipating the trope of suffering. I don't know. Whether or not you relate to the characters isn't a measure of how much it moved you. Ann Hui's Song of the Exile is about a similar mother-daughter conflict/bond, but I was more engaged with that film than this one.
Just by being younger, by default I guess we're asked to identify with the daughters and be distanced from the mothers, even as we get to know their stories. I don't know if I was entirely antagonistic to all the daughters' stories, but I felt the same way as Ana, in terms of the stakes just not being high enough compared to the mothers' stories. In that sense, I was more receptive to the latter. Granted, I could definitely relate to realizing and appreciating at a later age what my parents went through as an immigrant family, trying to make a new life for themselves, without betraying the kind of life they had before, in a way that won't stunt the children's lives. But overall, there was a detachment.
Ada: I think it's definitely true that it's one thing to relate to it, and another to be moved by it. Now that I think back to high school, when I was reading Joy Luck Club, I don't think I was uninterested because I didn't relate to it. I probably related to it, but didn't find it interesting.
I definitely felt a distance to it, though, watching it fifteen years later. Even though it's technically "my culture," I didn't watch it as if people were going to judge me by the way these characters acted. To me, the mothers/grandmothers stories seemed like fables -- 1) because there wasn't enough time to delve deeply into any of them, and 2) because I couldn't really place them in a specific historical context, so I wasn't sure if those stories were meant to be realistic. The adult daughters' stories seemed like they were supposed to be realistic, but my reaction was more like... Man, these girls need to lighten up. And not get into relationships with stupid men. Either way, the stakes weren't that high for me. It didn't feel like an all-encompassing Asian American story. It just felt like a specific tale about eight Chinese American women in the 1980s.
Rowena: About the mothers/grandmothers stories seeming like fables/myths -- [critical and cultural theorist] Rey Chow, in her critique, admits to seeing the Orientalist critique of Tan and Joy Luck Club, but she argues that we can't stop there. To do so would be limiting our criticism to "like/don't like" or positive vs. negative. I think her agenda is to have people look more deeply about the melodrama as a form or storytelling structure on its own terms. I like what she points toward.
It seems that what she's trying to make people see is that the worlds of The Joy Luck Club -- because the characters are metaphorical -- can't be read simply as authentic. It functions as a myth, and with myth, you don't have the historical. Characters are often heroic and by default tragic. My theory is that the Asian American writers had problems with the rave reviews because the critics (mainly white) took the worlds as absolutely authentic. When perhaps the authentic reading misses half the point. Or even just really practical things, like...
Cathryn: Like -- why would June arrive in China on a freakin boat??! Airplane travel was the way to go during the early 1990s. But as a reader, I think the Joy Luck Club was actually one of the better books Amy Tan wrote. It didn't have so much Chinese folklore in it, compared to The Bonesetter's Daughter, which made Chinese people seem like the most superstitious people in the world.
Rowena: An interesting point that Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong makes is that a majority of the praise for Joy Luck Club had to do with the question of authenticity. On the one hand, there was praise for the authentic details of "old China"; on the other hand, there was also praise in the way it didn't make details matter because the worlds she created are so "dreamlike," full of "mystery." And she actually devotes a substantial paragraph of incorrect details of Chinese customs, language in her essay.
It's funny; I asked one of my friends who's a lot older. She's Taiwanese but has lived here for quite a while, and she was in her 20s when she saw the film. She didn't necessarily relate to either the daughters or the mothers because she was between the two generations. But she, too, wondered about the accuracy of the mothers' situations in China. She lays the blame on Hollywood, which as we all know, has always had an ambiguous relationship to history. Perhaps it's something worth exploring -- this accusation of Hollywood whitewashing that comes mainly from Asian American critics/scholars.
Ada: Reading over the criques of Joy Luck Club over the years, it seems like one of the main annoyances was about authenticity, and the other was about perpetuating exotic stereotypes. Which leads to...
We Can Work it Out: Asian Women and their Depression + Asian Men are Incorrigible!
Cathryn: After watching this movie, why do I get the feeling that all Chinese women have to be depressed first to be happy?
Ada: I wonder if Amy Tan's book became popular because the mainstream wanted to think that depressed Asian American women were really deep.
Rowena: Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong actually contextualises the mother-daughter bond in Asian American literature prior to Tan's book, and asks more generally: what do readers (feminist or otherwise) find so engrossing about mother-daughter stories? Wong's answer to this is that Tan's mother-daughter stories make accessible a distant, exotic world of experience. In other words, it participates in Orientalist discourse. Wong finds these just play into making palatable Tan's stories to white, feminist readers.
Ada: In terms of reactions from men, I found this article online called " Why Joy Luck Club Sucks," which basically encapsulates people's ideas about the perpetuation of Asian American stereotypes. It was written in 1997, and I hesitate to dismiss it completely, but it struck me as outdated. He was especially angry about how Asian American males were portrayed.
Cathryn: Yeah, the movie will give you the impression that Chinese men are assholes. And it reminded me of the rumor that Chinese moms will tell their daughters to marry only Chinese or white men.
Ada: I don't know. Prior to watching the film, I had heard that there was criticism about Asian male representation. Mostly it reminded me of the recent complaints about Red Doors, how because the girls end up with white boyfriends, it’s somehow a direct affront to the Asian male population that is tired of feeling emasculated. I think people were overreacting. For Joy Luck Club, in particular, I didn't really see the white males as being particularly fleshed out either, so I don’t really get the whole "white male good, Asian male bad" complaint at all.
Rowena: I agree. I’m sure for some, though, that they’re not fleshed out makes the characters stereotypes.
Ana: The men seemed to be there just so they could talk about the theme of power struggles.
Ada: I guess it’s the idea that women are always suffering, and therefore the men must be the cause of the suffering that is bothersome to some people. But I didn’t get the impression that the Joy Luck Club women were all being oppressed by their husbands. It was just Russell Wong’s character. I’m not sure the chubby kid counts as an oppressor. Most of them were being oppressed by family, tradition, society, or other external factors. To me, the contemporary women seemed to be fully in control, actually. The two that were in problematic relationships [Lena (Lauren Tom) and Rose (Rosalind Chao)] were in marriages that they chose for themselves -- ones they had the power to either fix or leave.
Progressive Then? Progressive Now?
Ada: I’m really curious why the film was so universally beloved by critics. I’m wondering if standards are higher now. I personally can't see Joy Luck Club coming out today and critics putting it on their top 10 lists. APA editor Brian Hu and I were looking at the films that were out in 1993 and talking about how it really looked different from 2008, especially in terms of minorities in film. There were the films that touched upon "identity" issues, like Mississippi Masala, Wedding Banquet, Menace II Society, and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Then there were the Orientalist fantasies, like Farewell My Concubine and Scent of Green Papaya.
Brian was talking about how you can sense the excitement building when you look at these films: that American cinema was turning into something exciting, colorful, dynamic, new. This was also the heyday of the queer film movement in the American independent scene, with Living End being one of the definitive films. Then in 1994 came the climax: Pulp Fiction. We definitely don't feel excitement that now. Maybe a little bit when Better Luck Tomorrow came out.
Are we not as excited about Asian American-driven mainstream projects, because in a way it's not as much of a luxury to see Asian American faces in the media? Not to say there’s a ton of minority representation, but in the sense that it's not quite as exciting to see Asian American actresses onscreen, just for the sake of it? I remember when Lucy Liu was chosen as one of Charlie’s Angels. That was eight years ago, 2000. I always liked her in Ally McBeal, and I remember thinking, "Wow, she’s going to be right up there with Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz." I’m not sure if I’d have that same response now, but it made an impact then.
Ana: I get excited every time I see an Asian person in a band I really like. Two of my favorite albums this year were from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, and CSS, whose lead singer, Lovefoxxx, is of Japanese Brazilian descent. Thao is fierce on the guitar, and Lovefoxxx lays down some ridiculous lyrics. I love the brightness and abandon of both artists’ music, and it just so happens that they are of Asian descent. I think it’s powerful to see an Asian person, who’s creating great art that’s appreciated by wider audiences just because it’s great art.
Ada: I think my standards have gotten higher. In a sense, I have to appreciate the art to appreciate the media representation. For example, Grey’s Anatomy. Conceptually, I appreciate its diversity, but since I can’t stand the show, I can't really be that excited about Sandra Oh being on it. I wonder if The Joy Luck Club came out now, Asian Americans would be less quick to place high expectations on it (and bash it for not meeting them). And American critics might not overlook its mediocrity because they’re so excited about seeing something new.
Rowena: But, I think a Joy Luck Club now wouldn't necessarily be superfluous, since there still aren't a ton of minority representation. I find in niche festivals, there are films in recent years that would qualify as Joy Luck Club-y, like the one with Joan Chen that screened at the day of the VC film festival awards this year, The Home Song Stories. I guess the operative word is "mainstream." I think it's a bit unfair to say that we don't get excited if there's a mainstream, Hollywood-backed film with an Asian/Asian American cast. The difference may be that what we would get more excited about is that the story not always be an "Asian/Asian American" one, and just be a good story. You could easily say that the Margaret Yang character in Rushmore was playing up to the Asian schoolgirl stereotype, but was she really? She just happened to be Asian American who entered Max Fischer's world. Or what about Michelle Yeoh as a Bond girl?
Ada: I liked Michelle Yeoh as a Bond girl. But it's not like I related to her. I also like Mrs. Kim (Emily Kuroda) in Gilmore Girls, who I don't relate to either, but I like crazy people. I can't think of any Asian American characters I've related to, actually, in that whole-hearted "I feel like that's me onscreen" kind of way.
Cathryn: I used to only watch American television, and even in China, my fellow classmates were listening to Western pop culture over Chinese pop. I think one reason might be that you are seen as more "worldly" if you liked the Spice Girls or Westlife, or the Swedish band Smile dk. But I feel there's a change in trend recently. During my high school days, I found all these Korean American friends who openly talked about K-pop stuff in the hallway, and at first, I was really surprised to see K-pop becoming mainstream at a place like Beverly Hills High. And then, my Taiwanese friends started to hail the "Wang Leehoms," the ABCs (American Born Chinese). We liked them because they are proud of their Chinese ancestry. They want to combine our backgrounds together and make it something unique. I think the recent positive representation of ABCs allowed the younger generation to want to embrace their heritage more.
Ana: I think the environment has changed. Growing up in the eighties and early nineties, I rarely saw Asians in mainstream TV shows or films. If I did, they were in the background, the token Asian kid in a predominantly white group. In the past couple of years though, there’s been a greater push towards diversity.
I remember once being asked who would play me if there was a movie of my life when I was in elementary school. I didn’t have an answer. Now, kids have Brenda Song, a longtime fixture on the Disney Channel, as a lead in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody; Vanessa Hudgens in High School Musical; and the Disney Channel animated cartoon, Jake Long American Dragon. Okay, so clearly Disney’s still playing on some cultural stereotypes, but it is cool to see Asian characters/actors in lead roles in top-rated programs and movies. Plus, there’s actually some diversity amongst characters they play: they’re the shallow comic relief, the girl next door, and the hero. For the generation ten years younger than me, seeing Asians on TV is becoming more and more normal.
Ada: I remember being asked that hypothetical question too. I don't think I had an answer either. Alright, now I have to ask. 15+ years later, with a few more options to choose from in the Asian American performance community, who would play you in the movie about your life?
Rowena: Hmm -- I don’t really have an answer to that question. When I watched the documentary Against the Grain, the filmmaker interviewed a Peruvian artist of Japanese descent. I recall understanding his Latino-Asian fusion (but which for him was also a conflict since his parents had returned to Japan and forgot Spanish, and he stayed in Peru and forgot his Japanese). The same goes for the times I've met Japanese- or Korean-Brazilians. The fusion is very natural to me.
Yeah, this really doesn't answer your question, Ada. This is a trick post-colonial theory question, right? Maybe Bobby Lee from MadTV?
Ada: I was totally thinking that!!!!
For an interview with Wayne Wang, discussing A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, click here.