Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Joy Luck Club

There's no way I can claim to have a decent Asians/-Americans in the media blog without mentioning this movie. No way. 

Based on Amy Tan's book of the same nameJoy Luck Club (1993) is the story of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their relationships with their grown Chinese-American daughters. Su Yuan, Lindo, Ying Ying, and An-Mei were all born and raised in feudal China, and get together once a week to play mah-jong and drink tea and hope to be lucky in their lives. Their daughters, June, Waverly, Lena, and Rose, were born and raised in America. Su Yuan (Kieu Chinh) has passed away before the movie begins, and her story is told by June, her daughter. We learn about all of the seven other women in their various flashbacks to adolescence and childhood. Su Yuan was married in China to a different man and had twin baby girls. The Japanese invade China and she is forced to evacuate her village and head for Chungking with nothing but her babies. Along the way, she contracts dysentery and is worried that if she dies, it will bring bad luck on her babies and they won't be rescued. So she leaves them at the side of the road with a note asking whoever finds them to contact their father. She then winds up in America, remarries, and has her daughter June (Ming-Na), but she is forever haunted by the loss of her babies. Su Yuan has June begin to play the piano, hoping that she is gifted and will be a child star. However, June doesn't really want to do that, and she doesn't get why her mom wants her to - in fact, she doesn't get her mom at all. Lindo (Tsai Chin) was given away by her mother at age sixteen as part of an arranged marriage to a boy who was sixteen as well. Her husband had no sexual interest in her at all, and they became like brother and sister. Unfortunately, the boy's mother wants Lindo to produce a grandson for her, so she restricts Lindo to her bed until she gives birth to a baby. Lindo makes a plan to get out of her marriage which relies on her mother-in-law's belief in superstition. She escapes to America, remarries, has a daughter, Waverly, and becomes Su Yuan's best friend. The two women raise their children together, and Waverly and June grow up as rivals. Lindo makes Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita) into a chess champion, but has very high expectations of Waverly. When Waverly thinks her mom is using her champion status to draw attention to herself, Waverly quits chess and never plays again, but remains constantly afraid of her mother's criticisms. Ying-ying (France Nuyen) grew up meek and quiet and ended up marrying an abusive douchebag who sleeps around and treats her like dirt. They have a son together, but Ying-ying, wanting revenge, drowns the son. Her husband dies, and she goes to America with her new husband. They have a daughter, Lena, who grows up like her mother, quiet and unable to express herself. Lena (Lauren Tom) winds up in a marriage where her husband makes their relationship financially "equal" and therefore saps their relationship of all tenderness and caring. Lena ends up divorcing her husband and meeting someone new. An-Mei's (Lisa Lu) mother was raped by a wealthy man, and, having nowhere else to turn, she becomes his Fourth Wife and leaves An-Mei to be raised by her grandparents. Eventually, An-Mei's mother comes back for her and brings her to the house of her new husband, where she gave birth to a boy (as result of the rape) who has been adopted by Second Wife, a cruel and manipulative woman. An-Mei's mother commits suicide by eating opium before New Year's. An-Mei realizes her worth, and what has been going on in her new home, and demands that her "stepfather" treat her and her half-brother like they were his children from a First Wife. When An-Mei moves to America, she marries and has a daughter, Rose. Rose (Rosalind Chao) ends up marrying a white man who married her just to spite his racist mother. She is entirely dependent on him and he makes all of the decisions in their relationship. However, he ends up losing interest in her and having an affair. Rose and he decide to split their property and custody of their daughter, until Rose finally learns to stand up for herself and ask for her proper share of the property. All of these flashbacks are occurring during a farewell party for June, who will be going to China to meet the lost twins, who are now grown women and want to meet their mother. However, they don't know that their mother has died, so June must be the bringer of bad news. She goes to China and tells them that their mother has died, but that she came to take her mother's place. And so it ends, with an abundance of Kleenex and tears. 
Notice how the entire main cast is all Asian/-American women? There are hardly any white people in this film too - two husbands (of Waverly and Rose, respectively) and extras. Everyone else is Asian. Really Asian. No yellowface here, no sir. Remember Flower Drum Song? How it boasts an all-Asian American cast, and being the first of its kind? How it was applauded for being such a great portrayal of Chinese-Americans? Remember how it focused so much on being the first of its kind that it lost sight of the plot, dragged on too much and generally sucked? Not so with Joy Luck Club! It's a cast with talented, relatively unknown (back then) Asian-American women and it never loses sight of its plot, never has any contrived dialogue - it's solid all the way through. It tugs at your heartstrings. It's well-made, real, with no cheesy song-and-dance numbers or Monkey King ballets. There are real Asian people in both of the casts, but Flower Drum Song relies too much on its "groundbreaking" cast and forgets that there is something called plot, and it's rather important to a movie. Joy Luck Club has an all-Asian main cast, but it moves beyond that and strives to be a good movie. Sure, this movie deals with being Chinese, being Chinese American (the book even more so), but it doesn't get lost in that. It acknowledges it and moves on. The film uses the Chinese-ness as a backdrop to a compelling story about love and family and moms and daughters. I love this movie. Why did it take so long to make a movie with a primarily Asian cast that wasn't bad? Probably because we had to wait for Amy Tan to write the book, and because it wasn't a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

There are some really lovely, normal bits in this film, like all the scenes at June's farewell party before she leaves for China. Watching those scenes is like watching any party video. Everyone is acting normal, being regular human beings. If you were to cut out all of the flashbacks and just watch the party scenes, you would see normality, where (in the words of John Cho) "race is a fraction of their identity rather than the sum of their identity." We saw this a little bit in 21 Jump Street and a little more in Harold & Kumar - cool people in America doing regular people things and they just happen to be Asian. They're not smoking opium in dark corners (and there are no references to opium at all in this movie! Joy!) or something. True, there's a mah-jong game being played, but... that's still pretty normal. The people at this party are chatting, eating, drinking (not excessively), being pleasant. There are moments of tenderness (when June is telling Rose's daughter a story), short moments of happiness and gaiety (when a bottle of champagne is opened and it goes everywhere and everyone laughs), moments of chuckle-to-yourself-sweetness (when June is invited to join her mother's best friends at their mah-jong table). It's incredibly human, and that is some REAL representation. Normality! It's great! 
Empowering towards women (especially Asian women), this movie is. The plot, the characters, the relationships - all showing women in a positive light. The only women who are really portrayed as evil or corrupt are left back in China or ignored. The mother figures are shown as caring albeit misunderstood leaders who channel their inner strength in times of need. Almost all of the mothers had previous marriages and escaped them. Their daughters find their inner strength and overcome their own obstacles as well, with nothing but themselves and their mommy's anecdotes to get them through it all. Three of the daughters also end their primary marriages and pursue new ones. Almost none of the Asian stereotypes surrounding women are perpetuated here. There are no murderous, scheming, devilish Dragon Ladies. None of the women act in the manner of Suzie Wong. They don't parade around in body-hugging qipaos doing the cha-cha or seducing white men or selling themselves. The only stereotype that you see here is the one of the Lotus Blossom; however, that stereotype is overcome and pushed aside as the characters mature into stronger women. Joy Luck Club shows this transformation and rejection, not of the stereotype, of the role and oppression of their situation which causes them to act in accordance of that stereotype. The daughters might begin by subscribing to the model minority stereotype (the prodigy children, June and Waverly), but they end up quitting those roles and going on to be themselves. Strong women and the mother-daughter relationship is at the center of the entire film. So watch it with your mom and I dare you not to cry.  
I understand, however, how this film could not do so well in representing men. There's the creep who got his Fourth Wife by raping her, who doesn't end up feeling bad until she dies and her daughter (An-Mei) tells him that her mommy's ghost will come back to settle scores. There's the abusive and manipulative husband who sleeps around and isn't afraid to show it in front of his wife (Ying-Ying). There's the money-grubbing, unloving control freak (Lena's husband). Two sexual predators, one eunuch. All are misogynistic. The eunuch we can immediately classify as a Charlie Chan spin-off - uninterested in love, roly-poly, comical-looking, annoying. The two sexual predators are descendants of our favorite Fu Manchu, or maybe General Yen. Preying on women all the time, being manipulative, sly, crafty, cunning, you name it - they are portrayed as overly sexualized, threatening men. 
There's only one good portrayal of an Asian man in this film, and that is of June's father. June is about to leave to go meet her half-sisters in China. She finds her father sifting through a box of her mother's possessions to find things for the half-sisters to have, because "We have memories of Mommy in here [points to his head], and now they can have memories of Mommy." It's heartbreaking. And sweet. Because June's father loves her and loved her mommy. Reach for Kleenex, go ahead. But this character, who spends maybe all of seven minutes on the screen, is the only really positive male character we see in the film. 
Granted, neither the movie or the book are about men. It's about women, and the relationship between mother and daughter. But the men still matter. And I am unsure whether a movie like this one, with all it's groundbreaking, it's heartfelt-sobfest-ness, can be considered "real representation" if only the women get the proper portrayals. True, women have historically been the more repressed sex, but we can't call it equal representation if it's segregated by gender towards the female side. And, historically, Asian men haven't been represented in that great of a light either. This film is great for the portrayals when you ignore all the men (except June's dad) and focus solely on the women being mommies and daughters. 

Fun Facts About The Film (just because):
Russell Wong, who plays Ying-ying's abusive and cheating husband, also had a lead role in the episode of "The Dragon and the Angel" on 21 Jump Street. Amy Tan has a cameo in the very first scene. She enters the party with her movie family and gives a hug to another guest. My cousin was an extra. Ming-Na, who plays June, was also the voice (talking only, not the singing voice) of Mulan in both Mulan and Mulan II. In the scene of June's piano recital, the girl who is before her is singing "I Enjoy Being a Girl" from Flower Drum Song. Nancy Kwan is not in this movie. Neither is James Shigeta. I wonder why?
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  1. I like your article here, and I love how you recognize the less than flattering portrayal of Asian men in the film and book. However, I might challenge your view that Joy Luck Club, or anything that Amy Tan writes, does any sort of justice to Asian American women, or Asian and Chinese culture for that matter. I think this article on Frank Chin will elucidate these points much more poignantly that I possibly can. Here's the link:

    Keep on writing! I'm looking forward to how this blog turns out in the future. - Anonymous

  2. I agree that Amy Tan does tend to recycle ideas and concepts and, dare I say it, stereotypes in her novels. However, she has opened the doors for other Asian-American authors to write more "flattering" novels about the Asian-American experience. The success of Amy Tan as a novelist has made it more possible for better writers to emerge - and that's why I appreciate her. Amy Tan knows how to cater to the non-Asian-American audience - and it's only through her success that non-Asian-Americans will give other Asian-American novelists a chance. Take that last statement with a grain of salt, please.