FILM / Scenes from the grief brief: Adam Mars-Jones on The Joy Luck Club and My Life where crisis is shoehorned into the fake conflicts and resolutions of soap opera

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The Independent Culture
This has been an extraordinary season for the film of direct emotional appeal, known in its less ambitious forms as the tear-jerker. Audiences have been called on to identify with the sufferings of whole peoples (Schindler's List), of disenfranchised minorities (Philadelphia) and of extraordinary individuals (Shadowlands). The boom in cinema-related tissue sales will be with us for some time yet, but to judge by the latest offerings in this cycle, The Joy Luck Club (15) and My Life (12), film-makers are already aiming at a tear-duct too far.

The Joy Luck Club attempts to tell the story of two generations of Chinese-American women; mothers still bearing the scars of history, daughters caught between a tradition of self-sacrifice and an adopted culture of strident fulfilment. Amy Tan, who has adapted her novel for the screen with Ronald Bass, got her start in a creative writing workshop, but doesn't seem to have been told that it's better to tell one person's story well than everyone's badly. Upwards of two hours of screen time is built around a single party, held in honour of June (Ming-Na Wen), who is shortly to visit China, but interrupted by the memories of half a dozen other daughters and their mothers.

The screenwriters greatly overrate the effectiveness of flashback structure. It becomes preposterous and even comic that so many of the guests should become catatonic with memory in turn. It doesn't help that the flashbacks are often tucked inside each other, so that a daughter's reverie slides into her mother's interpretation of the same events. This device cries out to be compared with Chinese boxes, but Russian dolls better renders the obsessive maternity motif.

The film's opening credits are visually promising, the cinematic equivalent of evolving pen-and- wash sketches, representing a single feather. These images suggest a Chinese ideal of delicacy and indirection, while the beginning of the action shows us an opposite set of values: a party of almost ferocious sociability, with everyone talking at the same time and old arguments being renewed in every corner.

But The Joy Luck Club delivers neither subtlety nor heart-warming ebullience. Everything is shoehorned into the fake conflicts and resolutions of soap opera. In a perverse way it is almost to the credit of director Wayne Wang, whose Dim Sum explored many of the same themes with the minimum of manipulation, that he should seem at such a loss with untruthful material. Little things like the convincing placement of actors, or of the camera, persistently elude him. In one scene, a mother and daughter embark on the row of a lifetime in a hairdresser's. Fair enough: these things happen in the best-appointed salons. But the fact that they conduct the whole dogfight while looking at each other only in the mirror is simply ludicrous. Then they're laughing through their tears, decades of tension released in a minute, before the conditioner is even dry.

The effort to balance the philosophies of two generations leads to a strange blankness of tone. And the Russian-doll structure makes point of view even harder to follow. It isn't easy keeping mothers and daughters in the right pairings, when the narrative amounts to: I am telling you this, my daughter, because I knew nothing of my mother's history until the terrible night my nanny told me the whole story, and then I told my mother everything I'd just heard, and she told me it was all true. One dramatic incident from this strand of the film, in which a disgraced daughter makes soup of her own flesh to save her dying mother, takes place in a narrative no man's land which makes its meaning completely opaque. Does it represent the traditional view, that even a disobedient child can find within herself the ability to make sacrifices, or a modern rejection of it, which sees the traditional mother-daughter bond as essentially cannibalistic?

Unduly glossy production values provide distraction rather than interest. When a mother visits her daughter in the new home that represents in solid form everything that's wrong with her marriage, she may be horrified by its luxurious discomfort, but she has herself been dressed in soft greys that make her harmonise perfectly with the decor.

June is the only daughter without a mother living, and the only character whose story extends beyond the party which takes up so much of the film. She is going to China to be reunited with the half-sisters she has never known, twins her mother was forced by illness to abandon. Only just before her departure is she told that her new-found relatives don't yet know that their mother is dead - that she has abandoned them a second time. This is typical of The Joy Luck Club in being highly contrived and emotionally manipulative, but still undramatic, resulting only in another orgy of hugs and tears. If you go to this film with a date whom you want to impress with your sensitivity, bring onions.

My Life belongs to a rarer sub- genre of the tear-jerker, the Twelve- Step film, in which a character learns to take one day at a time, making great strides in personal growth at a time of crisis. The writer / director, Bruce Joel Rubin, was the writer of Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze learnt to take one day at a time even after his death, overcoming in limbo his lifelong inability to tell the people he loved that he loved them.

In My Life, the hero is a cancer patient making a video for the benefit of his unborn child, and realising in the process that he doesn't know much about life. He can't tell his wife he loves her either, but you can bet he'll be getting around to that. In the meantime, he fends her off with wisecracks, some of which are even passably funny, thanks mainly to Michael Keaton playing the lead.

My Life is the sort of New Age film that believes in everything and nothing at the same time, and turns every emotion into a therapy-wallow. The hero goes to a Chinese healer who diagnoses low self-esteem (those aren't his actual words) and makes tender therapeutic gestures over his body. Very soon, light is shooting down from the ceiling and the sick man is seeing a sort of compass rose of healing energy.

But the Chinese healer also, like a more orthodox therapist, sends the sick man back into his past, to understand and forgive. Keaton's character remembers two childhood traumas - a frightening roller-coaster ride, and a time when he asked God for a circus in his back-yard, and no circus came. The great thing about California Freudian Buddhism with homoeopathy crystal option is that it's reasonably easy to follow: the roller-coaster turns out to represent a roller- coaster, and circus-deprivation is a reversible condition. There seems to be no difference between the film's idea of maturity and regression, but wasn't it old Sigmund himself who said 'It's never too late to have a happy childhood'?

My Life may be the first film to have a lighting design derived from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's On Death and Dying, and illustrating the five stages of grief, but that's its only distinction. The director had the inspiration for the film when he had a tummy-ache after eating Mexican food, and thought he was going to die. It wasn't terminal illness, but it wasn't an idea for a film either. It was just bad Mexican food.

(Photograph omitted)