“The Joy Luck Club”: Mother-Daughter Issues

Suyuan: Not expect anything! Never expect! Only hope! Only hoping best for you. That’s not wrong, to hope. Jing-Mei ‘June’ Woo: No? Well, it hurts, because every time you hoped for something I couldn’t deliver, it hurt. It hurt me, Mommy. And no matter what you hope for, I’ll never be more than what I am. And you never see that, what I really am. Mother-daughter dialogue from The Joy Luck Club

The above lines from Wayne Wang‘s The Joy Luck Club (1993), a film about the lives, past and present, of four Chinese women and their 30-something Chinese-American daughters, are the most memorable from my long-ago viewing.

From Janet Maslin‘s film review, New York Times: “…both sweeping and intimate, a lovely evocation of changing cultures and enduring family ties. Admirers of the best-selling novel [by Amy Tan] will be delighted by the graceful way it has been transferred to the screen. Those unfamiliar with the book will simply appreciate a stirring, many-sided fable, one that is exceptionally well told.”

There’s a narrator, June: “…Ming-Na Wen has the pivotal role of June, who is off to find her long-lost siblings and whose going-away party becomes the pretext for bringing all these characters together. June is still mourning the recent death of her mother, which makes it odd that the party is so lavish and jolly that it includes barely a trace of grief.”

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com, further explains the premise: “The ‘Joy Luck Club’ of the title is a group of four older Chinese ladies who meet once a week to play mah jong, and compare stories of their families and grandchildren. All have made harrowing journeys from pre-revolutionary China to the comfortable homes in San Francisco where they meet. But those old days are not often spoken about, and sometimes the whole truth of them is not known.”

Generations clash: “In America, the mothers find it hard to understand the directions their daughters are taking. Some marry whites, who have bad table manners. They move out of the old neighborhood into houses that seem too modern and cold. One daughter despairs of ever satisfying her mother, who criticizes everything she does.”

Arguing last year for The Joy Luck Club “to be forgiven by Asian Americans”—the ones who’d rejected it under the pressure of it being the only film representing this particular population—Inkoo Kang (Slate) wrote:

The epic, gut-wrenching, emotionally layered melodrama gives tear-jerkers a good name…(I)t’s still surprisingly resonant, even modern. In the China scenes, the mothers fight for survival amid war, sexual assault, and life-destroying marriages. Lindo gets off relatively easy by ‘only’ being affianced to a stranger at age 4. (In her teens, she cleverly schemes to escape her arranged marriage.) As a girl, An-Mei learns that her mother, who became a lowly fourth wife after the death of her first husband, was raped by her new spouse, then had her child from that attack stolen by a more powerful wife. These traumas influence how these mothers raise their Chinese American daughters, most of whom are on the verge of marriage or divorce. ‘You don’t know the power you have over me,’ cries Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, fearing that her mother doesn’t approve of her fiancé. ‘Nothing I do could ever, ever please you.’ But Lindo, who had been fearing that her swanky, corporate-lawyer daughter is ashamed of her, is determined to make Waverly understand—by telling her own journey toward valuing herself—how much she trusts her adult child’s judgment and ability to make her own choices. The scenes in which daughters Lena and Rose reclaim their self-worth from the men in their lives are as satisfying and relevant as any in feminist movies today.

I’ve often considered re-seeing this highly female-centric film. Watch the trailer below:

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