“THE JOY LUCK CLUB” review by Roger Ebert
originally published on September 17th, 1993
“The Joy Luck Club” comes rushing off the screen in a torrent of memories, as if its characters have been saving their stories for years, waiting for the right moment to share them. That moment comes after a death and a reunion that bring the past back in all of its power, and show how the present, too, is affected – how children who think they are so very different are deeply affected by the experiences of their parents.
The movie, based on Amy Tan’s 1989 best-selling novel, tells the story of four women who were born in China and eventually came to America, and of their daughters. Around these eight women circle innumerable friends and relatives, both there and here, Chinese and not, in widening circles of experience. What is about to be forgotten are the origins of the women, the stories of how they were born and grew up in a time and culture so very different from the one they now inhabit.
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.
June (Ming-Na Wen), the narrator, is the daughter of one of the women, Suyuan (Kieu Chinh). After her mother’s death, she decides to take a trip to China, to meet for the first time two half-sisters who still live there. The movie opens at a farewell party, and then, in a series of flashbacks, tells the secrets and stories of all four of the “aunties.” In a screenplay remarkable for its complexity and force, “The Joy Luck Club” moves effortlessly between past and present, between what was, and how it became what is. Many different actresses are used to play the daughters and mothers at different ages, and there are many stories, but the movie proceeds with perfect clarity.