The Generation Gap In Chinatown

BRING TISSUES. BRING A WHOLE BOX, you'll be passing it down the row to your sniffling, nose-blowing, red-eyed neighbors. "The joy Luck Club," based on Amy Tan's 1989 best seller, wasn't particularly sad as a novel, but as a movie-get ready to cry yourself a river.

Four mother-daughter relationships are at the heart of the film. The mothers, born in China, have been playing mah-jongg together in San Francisco's Chinatown for years. Back in China, each was torn from her mother or child by war, madness or simply and horribly by custom. They rebuilt their lives in America, but their American-born daughters, now grown, have suffered losses of their own, trying to juggle the teachings of the old world and the new. All these stories unfold in flashback at a wonderfully unhurried pace. It makes for a long film--two and a half hours--but time flies when you're bawling your eyes out.

Not surprisingly, the mothers' stories are the most powerful. Their daughters' problems--identity crises and failed relationships suffered in gorgeous examples of Bay Area real estate-pack less of a wallop. With Auntie Lindo (Tsai Chin), for instance, we revisit a childhood of poverty. She's 4, round and bright eyed, and her mother has been forced to promise her in marriage to a wealthy family. We see mother and daughter huddled over their bowls and chopsticks in a dark cottage. "Stop stuffing yourself," her mother chides. "No girl should eat so fast." And she takes a morsel from her own bowl and drops it into Lindo's. The child's face is solemn; she knows she is being trained and how much she is loved. At 15, she is delivered to her fate, mother and daughter in wordless agony. The marriage is disastrous; ultimately Lindo engineers a most resourceful escape. But years later she can't communicate the same message of love and discipline to her own daughter, Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita). In America there's a lot more interference on the line. Instead of an intimate shot of those two faces in a dark cottage, mother and daughter wrapped in mutual understanding, we see Lindo and a young Waverly (Vu Mai) arguing fervently in the streets of Chinatown.

Eventually, Waverly and her mother get through to one another, and so do the other mothers and daughters. These scenes of reconciliation--in a beauty parlor or over the kitchen sink--are a bit contrived, but they help to bring home, literally, the themes of loss and self-discovery first raised in the exotic locales of old China. Yet moments as gripping as Lindo's last look at her mother, or when a sick and desperate Suyuan leaves her babies under a tree in wartime, hardly need to be updated. Anguish on this scale is universal.

Melodramatic? Manipulative? Sure, at times, but great storytellers can get away with anything, and the trio behind this film are in that class. Director Wayne Wang ("Chan Is Missing") and screenwriters Ronald Bass ("Rain Man") and Tan herself have come up with a shamelessly irresistible tale. The first-rate cast is another treat. Indulge yourself