Buzzfeed’s Susan Cheng has a detailed, well-written and well-researched feature on Wayne Wang’s 1993 film adaptation of Amy Tan’s best-selling novel THE JOY LUCK CLUB (though I think 1961’s FLOWER DRUM SONG would have issues with the assertion that JLC is the “only Hollywood film to feature a majority Asian-American cast”).
You can and should read the full article here, but we’ve compiled some highlights below:
HOW AMY TAN CAME TO WRITE THE NOVEL
Brought up on her mothers’ dreams of becoming a doctor and prodigy pianist, Amy Tan never thought she’d sell a book, let alone make a movie based on it. Tan had spent most of her professional life churning out copy as a freelancer, writing fiction in her spare time. It wasn’t until 1987, when her mother was hospitalized for chest pains, that Tan set out to write a book: “I decided that if my mother was okay, I’d get to know her, I’d take her to China, and I’d write a book,” she told People in 1989. Tan, who was then in her late thirties, stuck to her word, completing a collection of stories inspired by the ones her mother told about her life in China. Much to her surprise, The Joy Luck Club turned out to be an instant hit, landing on the New York Times best-seller list in April 1989, and ultimately peaking at the No. 1 spot.
HOW DIRECTOR WAYNE WANG CAME TO DIRECT THE FILM
Wang read and “fell in love with” The Joy Luck Club, and had tea with Tan shortly thereafter, in August 1989, to discuss the book and their shared struggle as Asian-American creatives. Their conversation eased Tan’s trepidation about the prospect of making a movie and helped convince her that Wang should be the person to direct the film adaptation of her book — should that come to fruition.
“At that time, there were still almost no Chinese-American stories being told, and I really believed that stories about Chinese-Americans should be onscreen,” Wang told BuzzFeed News in February. “Although I’m not a woman — and I don’t know some of those stories personally — they just read very authentic because they came from Amy’s mother.” A universal theme in the book also struck a chord with him: “The whole thing about finding your worth was something I could identify with, especially as a Chinese-American during that time.” By then the director had helmed a handful of films, including the critically acclaimed Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) and Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), so he knew better than most how draining it can be to constantly have to remind the world that such stories were worth telling.
HOW JANET YANG CAME TO PRODUCE THE FILM
Eventually Yang, the producer who’d been in touch with Tan, stepped in. She’d recently established a production company, Ixtlan, with filmmaker Oliver Stone, the renowned director behind Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK.
“Oliver looked at [the script] and said, ‘I don’t have time to work on it, but I’ll be glad to put my name on it as an executive producer if that will help you,’” Bass remembered. “We all said, ‘Oh, it ain’t gonna hurt.’” (A spokesperson for Stone told BuzzFeed News, “He’s very proud of the film and glad they got it made. It was a hard one, and one of the few in the American-Asian genre.”)
HOW THE FILM GOT MADE DESPITE (ALMOST) EVERY STUDIO TURNING IT DOWN
In the end, every studio they talked to turned them down — except one. Hollywood Pictures, a division of the Walt Disney Company, was run then by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the “unsung hero” behind the project, according to Bass. “In those days, he was legendary … Other people think he’s tough to work for; I thought he was fabulous to work for: to the point but very generous and understanding.” (Katzenberg declined to comment for this story.)
As Yang recalled it, “Jeffrey basically bought the project in the room,” agreeing to finance it with $10.5 million. It was a moderate budget, but it was enough to consider the funding secured.
WHY STAR TAMYLN TOMITA HAD RESERVATIONS ABOUT TAKING A ROLE IN THE FILM
Although Wang welcomed “Asians across the board,” Tomita had some misgivings about auditioning for The Joy Luck Club as a Japanese-Filipino actor, as a major recent controversy was still fresh in her mind. Just a couple years before, in 1990, it was announced that the hit London musical Miss Saigon would open on Broadway; Jonathan Pryce, a white actor in yellowface, was enlisted to continue playing his Eurasian character onstage. As a result, playwright David Henry Hwang and actor B.D. Wong slammed Actors’ Equity — the union representing theater actors — for allowing it. Despite fervent objections from Asian-American actors across the country, the casting was ultimately approved. This public dispute made Tomita reluctant to audition for her part in the film because she was not Chinese. She said she’d thought to herself, “Yeah, I should go in for [the part] ’cause I have this face, but then because of our collective Asian-American entertainment history, it should be a Chinese girl.”
Concerned about how she might be perceived by audiences, Tomita made it a point to be up front about her background in the audition room. “I was like, ‘Just as long as you know I’m of Japanese-Filipino heritage.’” She was confirmed for the role.
THE FILM’S “UNPRECEDENTED” PORTRAYAL OF ASIAN AMERICAN WOMEN
…in The Joy Luck Club, there are no dragon ladies or China dolls — only women born into a patriarchal society, who make the most of their circumstances. There’s the self-assured and defiant Lindo, who schemes her way out of an arranged marriage, and the vigilant, strong-willed An-Mei Hsu (Lisa Lu), who learns to value herself after witnessing the tragic life of her mother (Vivian Wu), who was raped and forced into a concubinage with an older merchant. Neither of the women are “docile,” nor do they submit to the misery they are dealt — even the less moral characters, like the cunning “Second Wife” (Elizabeth Sung), who takes measures to retain her status, tricking An-Mei’s mother into being raped and then taking the baby as her own son.
Sung praised the way the film tackles the misogyny of traditional Chinese values of decades past. “It really speaks to and about women at that time,” she told BuzzFeed News in January. She explained that her character, who is middle-aged and unable to have children, resorts to cruelty “out of the desperate need to survive.”
AND THE INEVITABLE BACKLASH IT RECEIVED FROM SOME ABOUT ITS PORTRAYAL OF ASIAN MEN
While The Joy Luck Club was one of a kind for its depiction of Asian and Asian-American women with wants and woes, it was not a perfect film, especially in the eyes of some Asian men, who found fault with how the film represented them. Take it from Ah Wong, a resident of Westminster, California, who saw the film in October 1993: “No, I did not walk out of a screening of The Joy Luck Club with soppy eyes and tissues covering my nose like many viewers did. But I almost pulled my jacket over my head in order to cover myself from feeling terribly embarrassed and from being a Chinese male,” he wrote in a brief review for the LA Times. “Almost every single Chinese male character was portrayed as evil and irresponsible. We are either the macho male chauvinist who enjoys taking advantage of innocent virgin women, or collect concubines as trophies, or push them to leave us because we are cold and incapable of giving warmth and love.”
ON THE STATE OF ASIAN AMERICANS IN HOLLYWOOD 23 YEARS AFTER ‘THE JOY LUCK CLUB’
Although Wang seemed more cynical about the current state of filmmaking — and whether the industry would soon embrace Asian-American actors — others expressed optimism. “I still like to believe if there’s something really good, people will recognize it,” Yang said. “I don’t want people to give up hope that it’s possible.”
Wen, an outspoken champion for inclusivity who slammed Scarlett Johansson’s controversial role in the Ghost in the Shell last year, expressed a similar sentiment. “As you get older you start to realize, well, there’s just certain things that don’t really change,” she admitted, allowing that she becomes “fatigued” whenever backlash against a miscast role builds and persists. “I’d rather talk about the good things that Amy Tan has done with her book and with our film.”
For her, The Joy Luck Club was “everything,” and it instilled in her the enthusiasm “to forge ahead and do even more as an Asian-American actress for the next generation of actors.”