FILM / The tears of living dangerously: Wayne Wang called Oliver Stone's films evil; Stone called Wang's boring. The novelist Amy Tan brought them together. By Sheila Johnston
Friday 11 March 1994
Wang looks a little sheepish (and also as though he would have much preferred to be Best One-Night-Stud). But he has made a more than dependable movie. In Hollywood's latest cyclical spin, the straight action picture is on the wane - the Oscar- nominated Fugitive has been the only recent outstanding example - and the weepie is waxing prosperous. There's gold in them (and Oscar nominations): this season's long wave includes Philadelphia, Schindler's List, Shadowlands and, less successfully, My Life. But The Joy Luck Club has been the unlikeliest of them all.
Almost all its characters are Chinese or Chinese-American. It has a fiendishly complicated plot featuring eight major roles (four pairs of mothers and daughters), multiple voice-overs, flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Much of the dialogue is in subtitled Mandarin. Its budget, dollars 10.5m, is a fraction of those other movies. There are no major stars.
Tan's novel - her first - sat on the American bestseller lists for over a year, but that doesn't automatically translate into box-office dollars. Especially since she was determined to keep tight tabs on her project and had already attached Wang, who had a solid track record in small independent film-making, but was no Steven Spielberg. It took a long time to find two unlikely patrons: Oliver Stone, the executive producer, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Disney, the studio which eventually backed the picture.
Strange godfathers; at the time Stone had a dismal reputation for xenophobia, thanks to his screenplay for Michael Cimino's The Year of the Dragon, a yellow peril thriller. Wang had a public spat with him in the press. He called Stone's characters violent and evil. Stone called Wang's (in Dim Sum) boring. Since then, Stone has gone P C (and, many felt, boring), with Heaven and Earth, and Wang has proved with the Joy Luck Club that he can make a film with mainstream appeal. 'We both laugh about it now,' he says.
Disney was another potential problem. The studio was notorious for meddling, although it has recently moved towards hands-off deals with independent film- makers like Merchant Ivory. 'We agreed to do The Joy Luck Club on such a low budget that for them it was a throw-away gamble,' Wang says. 'And they truly didn't know anything about this type of movie, so they didn't interfere too much.'
The first preview screenings were to the film's target audience: Chinese-Americans and arthouse buffs. 'The thing that surprised me was how well they went. Actually, it also surprised the studio; they started taking the film deeper and deeper into the so-called Valley in LA which is a middle-class, completely non-intellectual film-going public.' And the film passed through this valley of instant box-office death, and emerged triumphant. Young, blue-collar bucks under 22 went to sneer and came out sobbing. The American reviews were good, although some British critics (including our own, right) found it more schmaltzy than sour-sweet. The studio realised it had a crossover on its hands, and The Joy Luck Club went on to gross dollars 32m-plus in the States.
It is sombre, multi-hanky stuff. One Chinese mother must abandon her twin daughters at the roadside while fleeing the Communists; another schemes her way out of an arranged marriage with a fat, barely pubescent boy. 'The most dramatic plotline in the film is about a mother who has been raped, became pregnant and ends up killing herself,' Tan says. 'Her daughter watches her die. That is the story of my grandmother, and my mother was the little girl.'
Tan was born in California to immigrant parents, a first-generation Chinese- American. Wang, whose very name embodies the meeting of East and West (his father named him after John Wayne), comes from Hong Kong. 'I was born in January, 1949, 12 days after the Communist takeover in China: my mom was pregnant with me all the time she was fleeing to Hong Kong. So that's my perspective on the stories. I was very Western, actually very British in many ways.
'I grew up speaking Cantonese, although my parents spoke Mandarin. My Mandarin got pretty bad over the years - I could never pronounce the word for 'myself'; it always sounds like the little kids' word for 'my penis'. So, while we were shooting in China, I was going round telling the actors, 'I'll show you my weenie.' '
The Joy Luck Club is also about the four American-born daughters and, if the mothers' stories recall Wild Swans (the novel by Jung Chang), their childrens' problems could almost be plot strands of thirtysomething. It's the classic immigrants' story, of parents who sacrifice affluence and social status to give their families a fresh start, and who then live to see their American-born children well-to-do, but unhappy and ungrateful.
'I identified with the daughters in the sense that I felt being born after the war, being born basically middle-class, I never had real, dramatic life experiences,' Wang says. 'In some ways I would even call myself shallow because of that. And, at the same time, I despised my parents because they were from the Old World, not knowing what they'd gone through to give us the life we had.'
But Tan believes it is primarily a generation gap, and one which will be understood by audiences of all cultures and nationalities. 'Many of us are baby-boomers: we didn't have to go through wars and severe economic depression. Yet we are faced with a lot of choices in our lives, almost too many - parenting or career, where you live, what you do - choices that weren't allowable to the previous generation. Daughters end up making the same mistakes as their mothers. Giving in to other people's opinions. Not understanding their own worth.'
It's this mother-daughter struggle, in four different configurations, which lies at the heart of The Joy Luck Club and yet Tan, who writes about it so passionately, has no children by choice. 'I have a . . . cat. A very bad cat. I have often convinced myself that if I had a child, it would have been a daughter, and she would have been as bad as I was, or quite possibly worse, as a karmic retribution.
'But I think the real reason I don't have children has to do with fear. I lost my father and my brother when I was very young and it was so painful. And my mother said to me, there is no greater pain you can ever face in your life than that of losing a child. I thought: I could never face that. I would die, and I would live in fear if I had a child. So I just get to be a doting aunt.' (Photograph omitted)
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