Yu Feihong and Russell Wong in The Joy Luck Club.
Yu Feihong and Russell Wong in The Joy Luck Club. Hollywood Pictures

It’s Time to Forgive The Joy Luck Club

The landmark film beautifully portrayed the Asian American experience. Then Asian Americans turned on it.

If you want to see a community turn against an artwork that depicts them, make it the only one. If that artwork is by a woman, about women, and openly feminist, half the job’s already done. The Joy Luck Club, a movie that turns 25 this year, is guilty of all of these charges. After defying the odds to arrive in not just theaters but multiplexes, it opened to mostly positive reviews and became a modest box-office success. But the film’s greatest achievement—becoming the most prominent example of Asian American representation on screen for a quarter century—is also what has relegated it to being a relic and, for many Asians, an embarrassment.

Wayne Wang’s masterpiece, which Amy Tan and Ronald Bass adapted from Tan’s landmark 1989 novel, has cast a long shadow, for good and bad. Other than Jurassic Park, which saw the release of its fourth sequel earlier this summer, no other 1993 release is as frequently cited in the current cultural conversation as The Joy Luck Club. The new romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, as has been widely noted, is the first studio film centered on the Asian American experience since Wang’s drama. The film might also be justly blamed for making the cultural and generational gap between immigrant parents and assimilated children a primary lens through which to view the Asian American experience. You can hear a strong echo of the film in the celebrated 2015 “Parents” episode of Master of None, in which the Indian American and Taiwanese American hipsters played by Aziz Ansari and Kelvin Yu, respectively, find themselves marveling at the unimaginable sacrifices their fathers underwent to fight for a better life in America. If The Joy Luck Club’s themes had to be reduced to a sentence, that sentence would be its summary, too.

Tan has credited her mother’s stories as the inspiration for her trans-Pacific, time-jumping novel, which chronicles the strained bonds between four elderly Chinese-immigrant mothers and their thirtysomething Asian American daughters as well as the rather different relationships the older women had with their birth families in early-20th-century China. The tropes and themes Tan employs in The Joy Luck Club and her other fictional work—mother-daughter relationships, the traumas of the past haunting the present, the difficulties of relating to Asian culture from an Asian American viewpoint—helped establish a way of thinking about Asian American identity, a concept that has yet to be taught widely in schools or considered important in the mainstream media beyond the “model minority” myth. The problem came when the larger culture decided that there was no need for any more ideas of Asian Americanness other than those in The Joy Luck Club.

And so the burden of representation thrust upon the film proved impossible to bear. Over a generation, the film has turned into a lightning rod among Asian Americans. (Webpages with titles such as “I Hate Amy Tan“ and “Why Does Everyone Hate Amy Tan?“—pretty much all rooted in the popularity of The Joy Luck Club—are numerous.) Based on her family’s experiences, and seemingly loosely autobiographical—like her protagonist, June, Tan herself was a rebellious youth and worked as a freelance copywriter when she wrote the novel—The Joy Luck Club was left with the task of representing all Asian Americans. It was a fate its author likely never intended. Had a wave of Asian American stories followed The Joy Luck Club into American cineplexes, as many hoped after its success, the movie could have found a comfortable home among a spectrum of representations. Instead, its unique standing curdled both the book and the movie for many of the people they purportedly spoke for, regardless of whether they read the novel, watched the film, both, or neither.

The women of The Joy Luck Club.
The women of The Joy Luck Club. Hollywood Pictures

That kind of rejection inevitably happens to pioneers when they’re the only ones to break through. (It bears repeating: This is especially the case when they’re female and/or female-centered.) When Chinese American actress Anna May Wong briefly became a Hollywood star in the first half of the 20th century, she received backlash from her community for the stereotypical “dragon lady“ roles in which she was cast. In the ’90s, I grew up hearing nasty comments in the Korean American community about comedian Margaret Cho.

This is not an exclusively Asian American phenomenon. Gone With the Wind actress Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner, was denounced by the NAACP for promoting stereotypes with her performance as Mammy. Perhaps most similarly to Tan and The Joy Luck Club, Alice Walker was met with jeers from many black men for The Color Purple, which became one of the most successful and acclaimed Hollywood films ever to star all black leads and ends with its female protagonist, Celie, in a Utopian lesbian union after a lifetime of being abused by the men around her. If the mainstream film or publishing industries had been more welcoming toward all kinds of stories from all kinds of communities, none of these works or entertainers would be loaded with the expectation that they please everyone. But an environment where only one person, or portrayal, is permitted to stand in for the whole is bound to turn into a breeding ground for resentment.

The Joy Luck Club’s reputation deserves to be rescued from this phenomenon. The epic, gut-wrenching, emotionally layered melodrama gives tear-jerkers a good name. Despite the early ’90s trappings—one of the daughters swans around in a gleamingly white, gloriously angular power suit—it’s still surprisingly resonant, even modern. In the China scenes, the mothers fight for survival amid war, sexual assault, and life-destroying marriages. Lindo gets off relatively easy by “only” being affianced to a stranger at age 4. (In her teens, she cleverly schemes to escape her arranged marriage.) As a girl, An-Mei learns that her mother, who became a lowly fourth wife after the death of her first husband, was raped by her new spouse, then had her child from that attack stolen by a more powerful wife. These traumas influence how these mothers raise their Chinese American daughters, most of whom are on the verge of marriage or divorce. “You don’t know the power you have over me,” cries Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, fearing that her mother doesn’t approve of her fiancé. “Nothing I do could ever, ever please you.” But Lindo, who had been fearing that her swanky, corporate-lawyer daughter is ashamed of her, is determined to make Waverly understand—by telling her own journey toward valuing herself—how much she trusts her adult child’s judgment and ability to make her own choices. The scenes in which daughters Lena and Rose reclaim their self-worth from the men in their lives are as satisfying and relevant as any in feminist movies today.

Indeed, The Joy Luck Club remains unusual in how seriously it takes women, mother-daughter relationships, and the dangers of patriarchal cultures. (Fifty of its 60 speaking parts are female.) I adore the opening scene at the party where all the women are gathered (save June’s late mother), with a football game playing on one side of the living room and a Chinese scroll resting on an opposite wall. When I first saw the movie as a high schooler, it was one of the first Asian American works of art that drove home for me how recent wartime trauma is for many Asian immigrants, and what that can look like. It also taught me how true equality between romantic partners should play out. But The Joy Luck Club isn’t just well-written and well-acted. It’s sexy, overflowing with stylish costumes, and captures a huge variety of human experiences: of first-generation immigrants, of second-generation immigrants, of mothers, of lovers, of daughters. Just when you start rolling your eyes at the persistent pan flute in the score, here comes an Asian woman cussing, or fucking, or, most scandalous to me, smoking.

And yet I understand (most of) the criticisms of The Joy Luck Club. Detractors who bristle at Tan and Wang’s depiction of China as a backwater will surely find some solace in Crazy Rich Asians, which highlights the continent’s ritzier, less tradition-bound present. And while Tan has the right to express herself as she sees fit, I’m sympathetic to those who find the film and book’s imagery—Wang’s calligraphy-inspired opening sequence about a swan, for example, and even the title The Joy Luck Club—too “Orientalist” and foreign. As for the accusation that they’re too accessible to white (and other) audiences—that the novel is the “Panda Express of Asian American lit,” as one Reddit user calls it—I don’t agree that that’s a bad thing. So what if The Joy Luck Club is culturally legible to outsiders if it also speaks to Asian American concerns? I don’t think we’re so inscrutable.

Where I do find myself short on patience is with critics who say The Joy Luck Club is Exhibit A for Asian American misandry. Those broadsides have hounded the film since its premiere: One Los Angeles Times letter writer called it a “ ‘Chinese Male-Bashing Club’ movie” that depicts “almost every single Chinese male character … as evil and irresponsible.” Last year, Wang told BuzzFeed, in Susan Cheng’s retrospective piece on the film, that he’d perhaps soften the portrayal of men as a whole if he were to remake it today. Still, the movie’s portrayal of patriarchy at its most mundanely brutal isn’t exactly spun out of thin air. “I mean, Chinese men are kind of awful,” Wang said. “As a man, I sometimes get embarrassed, especially when I’m in Asia, and I see how Chinese men are with their wives or daughters.” On the same subject, one of the film’s male actors argued, “If there were more Asian-American films with different stories, it wouldn’t matter.”

No Asian American film has quite the level of name recognition as The Joy Luck Club. But before Crazy Rich Asians came on the scene, the second-best-known Asian American film was arguably Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (where an immigrant parent with high expectations also plays a role). Those who scratch the surface of the Asian American indie canon, however lightly, will have heard of Wang’s Chan Is Missing, which came out in 1982, and Justin Lin’s 2002 solo directorial debut Better Luck Tomorrow, which, in its portrayal of morally adrift Asian youth, in some ways is pointedly what The Joy Luck Club is not. Justin Chon’s Gook and Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night made small splashes within the past couple of years, partly by exploring different dimensions of Asian American masculinity. On TV, there’s Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None. Nearly all of these star, and are written and directed by, Asian American men. I don’t want to downplay the underrepresentation of Asians in pop culture—it is stark and it is depressing. But carping on The Joy Luck Club as giving unreasonable prominence to one woman’s experience and imagination obscures the fact that Asian American men can and do tell their own stories. It’s time for Asian Americans to finally forgive The Joy Luck Club for the sin of being the first and only and instead start to think of it as what it has been all along: a brave and beautiful film in a canon long overdue for more.