Photo: ‘The Joy Luck Club’
If we were to look back on the amount of Asian-Pacific-led films that were present in Hollywood, there would be next to none. The history of Asian representation in movies and television was minimal. But whenever there was a chance to portray Asian Americans in entertainment, the portrayal of the community was problematic and complicated. From whitewashing Asian characters to issues of yellow-face, the path towards Asian representation that we see today wasn’t an easy one. It was up until the 1993 release of the film, ‘The Joy Luck Club’, where it shattered the glass ceiling and finally introduced Hollywood to Asian stories. The movie was an adaptation of the 1989 book by Amy Tan and was directed by Wayne Wang. It became the first major motion picture with an all-Asian cast and made $33 million at the box office. The film was a profound milestone that helped introduce Hollywood to Asian stories. In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, let us look back on the success of ‘The Joy Luck Club’ and the successful Asian-led films that are beginning to break barriers.
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The Story of ‘The Joy Luck Club’
The film consisted of a simple storyline that explored the themes of family, motherhood, and culture. It followed four Chinese women: Suyuan (played by Kieu Chinh), Lindo (played by Tsai Chin), Ying Ying (played by France Nuyen), and An Mei (played by Lisa Lu), who formed a group called ‘The Joy Luck Club’ where they spent their time playing mahjong and exchanging stories. The film explored their lives during early revolutionary China and their journey of immigrating to San Francisco. Their stories are explored alongside their four daughters: June (played by Ming-Na Wen), Lena (played by Lauren Tom), Waverly (played by Tamlyn Tomita), and Rose (played by Rosalind Chao).
The daughter’s stories are woven next to the mother’s as their experiences are a reflection of the lessons their mothers have gone through. As all four daughters have grown up in the United States, the differences between American and Chinese culture are explored as it showcases the stories of Asian American life and the struggles of identity. ‘The Joy Luck Club’ embraces culture but it also recognizes the hard work of immigrant mothers and the value of passing one’s wisdom down to their own. It examines the essence of motherhood through the eyes of sacrifice as the story recognizes what a mother would do in order to protect her child.
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How The Story of Playing Mahjong Captured Hollywood
The film captivates the essence of the Asian American experience in a light that most major studios in Hollywood have never done before during that time. The main characters were complex and their life stories were stories that were never portrayed on the big screen. It understood the difficulties of being a minority in America as it perfectly examined the struggle in trying to grasp two differing cultures. It was one of the first films that depicted Asian Americans in a light that did not fit the stereotype that Hollywood forced Asians in. It successfully strayed away from martial arts tropes and the depictions of Asian women as delicate. Tan and Wang were able to portray a story that emphasizes the immigrant experience and also being children of immigrants who are bicultural. It captures the inherent need of immigrant parents to see their children thrive and impose their spirit and hope onto them.
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Hearing the stories of the mothers and how it is reflected within their daughter’s life, shows that no longer finding peace in the country from where they emigrated causes trauma and that trauma is passed down. Oftentimes the mothers will have cold shoulders or snotty comments toward their daughters, but it is evident that it comes with good intentions. The film effectively cures this form of generational trauma by having the daughters simply understand where their mother is coming from and vice versa. The acts of storytelling throughout the movie were used as a tool to heal from the past while connecting us with one another. Though telling these stories are painful, it’s a way to make us feel less alone and less isolated amidst times of difficulty. To put it simply, ‘The Joy Luck Club’ was Asian American representation done right.
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Asian American and Pacific Islander Representation Today
It has been 29 years since the release of ‘The Joy Luck Club’. Although the debut of the film in 1993 was a great landmark in Hollywood for Asian Americans, it is only until recently that we are starting to see a great shift within the industry. More Asian voices are being put on a platform for a diverse audience to watch and relate to. Going back to the 2018 release of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, the film follows the success of ‘The Joy Luck Club’ 25 years later as the story obtains similar themes of the Asian American experience. Though the film touches on luxury it still is reminiscent of the themes its predecessor carries. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ mimicked the success of ‘The Joy Luck Club’ as it took the world by storm and made $238 million at the box office. Since then, the release of many more successful Asian-led and centered films has entertained a wide variety of viewers.
We are even starting to see Asian superheroes make it to the big screen such as Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ with its release in 2021. In addition, recent films such as ‘Turning Red’ and ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ follow the same path as ‘The Joy Luck Club’ as both films touch on the healing side of generational trauma in their own unique way. These films are constantly proving the success of Asian stories and are finally displaying the importance of proper Asian representation within Hollywood.
By Anica Muñoz
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I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV. media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.”
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Anica Muñoz is a writer and an aspiring film producer with a passion for media and entertainment. She strongly considers storytelling to be a powerful tool that bridges the divide between communities. Anica enjoys films that showcase a diversity of voices and brings forth empowerment for a wide group of individuals. From her writing, she believes in creating a positive impact with her analysis and reviews of films by exploring the power of human connection within these stories. Her perspective towards consuming entertainment is driven by compassion which aligns itself with the mission of The Hollywood Insider. Anica hopes to share her enthusiasm and love for cinema with others through her work.