`Joy Luck Club' Comes to Screen

Amy Tan's story of two generations of Chinese women is affecting but lacks depth

ASIAN movies and Asian themes are unusually prominent in world cinema just now.

On the international front, two Chinese films - ``Farewell My Concubine'' and ``The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls'' - have won top prizes at major festivals. On the theatrical circuit, American audiences are seeing ``The Wedding Banquet'' and preparing for the Broadway-based ``M. Butterfly'' and the exquisite South Korean drama ``Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?''

Of all the new Asian attractions, none has been more eagerly awaited than ``The Joy Luck Club,'' based on Amy Tan's popular 1989 novel. It has now arrived, in a carefully produced adaptation that showcases Chinese talents on both sides of the camera - including director Wayne Wang, an experienced Chinese-American filmmaker, and Tan herself, who wrote the movie with Hollywood screenwriter Ronald Bass.

The film is likely to please admirers of Tan's book, since it focuses on the same basic theme: the delights, disappointments, and dilemmas faced by Chinese-American mothers and daughters who grew up on opposite sides of the Pacific under vastly different circumstances.

Like the novel, the movie does a good deal of jumping around in time and space, telling not a single story but an interrelated group of tales, anecdotes, and reminiscences.

Also like the novel, the film never quite coalesces into a fully unified work, but uses its own fragmentation as a metaphor for the diversity of Chinese-American experience. Talky, episodic, and ripely sentimental, it invites us to understand its characters more through our emotions than our intellects. It's an appealing movie, but no more insightful than the bestseller that inspired it.

The title of ``The Joy Luck Club'' refers to a group of Chinese emigres in San Francisco who have regular meetings to keep in touch, talk over their lives, and play rounds of mah-jongg in the traditional Chinese way.

The movie begins when young June is asked by the club to take the place of her mother, Suyuan, who recently died. This leads to June's discovery that her twin half-sisters, long thought to have perished during the Japanese occupation of China in the 1940s, are alive and hoping for a visit from their rediscovered American relatives.

June's preparations to meet them in China provide a framework for the rest of the film, which spends most of its time on numerous other yarns. Some are modern, revolving around June's contemporaries, while others look back to Asia and the early lives of the young women's mothers.

The movie is nothing if not varied, skipping between subjects ranging from forced marriage and domestic brutality in old China to unfulfilled ambition and the inequality of women in America today. The challenge of sustaining strong mother-daughter relationships is a constant concern, however.

Tan's novel is better at describing emotions, and the outward conditions they're connected to, than at probing the deeper mental and spiritual roots of her characters. The same can be said of Wang's movie, which substitutes engaging performances and picturesque images for the psychological analysis and social commentary he might have attempted.

While there is much to enjoy in the film, there is little to be learned from it beyond capably filmed details of Chinese dress, custom, and attitude.

Nor does it have the cinematic adventurousness that Wang revealed in his first feature, ``Chan Is Missing,'' but hasn't equaled in his four subsequent pictures.

WHAT entertainment value and emotional appeal the film does boast - and it's a lot - can be traced largely to its Asian and Asian-American cast. Besides Ming-Na Wen as June and Kieu Chinh as Suyuan, the performers include Tamlyn Tomita, Lauren Tom, and Rosalind Chao as the other young women and Tsai Chin, France Nuyen, and Lisa Lu as the mothers.

Amir Mokri did the camera work, which seems more authentic in intimate scenes than in occasional attempts at sweeping grandeur, and Rachel Portman composed the rather commonplace music. Oliver Stone and Janet Yang were the executive producers.

* ``The Joy Luck Club'' has an * rating. It contains sex and vulgar language as well as emotionally harrowing scenes.

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