Metaphors become real in Hollywood. So it’s fitting that The Joy Luck Club, Disney’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s groundbreaking 1989 novel about four Chinese women and their American-born daughters, itself now confronts the age-old immigrant dilemma-assimilation. Will Joy Luck be too esoteric for malls, multiplexes, and most moviegoers? Not if Disney can help it; despite the novelty of its Chinese-American context and its nearly all-female cast, the studio is determined to reach the mass audience of any other Hollywood production. ”They made this movie to make money,” says veteran actress France Nuyen (South Pacific), one of the film’s eight Asian-American female leads. ”It’s designed for the mainstream, not the ethnic, public.”
”The main problem we need to solve,” director Wayne Wang (Dim Sum, Slam Dance) readily admits now that his picture has opened in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to packed houses and eminently blurbable reviews, ”is (how) to get inside to Middle America.” In fact, Joy Luck started traveling that middle road over four years ago, before a frame of film was shot….
Inside an abandoned Northern California chocolate factory, platters heaped with steamed rock cod, roasted duck, and pineapple ham burden a banquet table. Children race around and through the legs of their make-believe parents, who chat amiably with ice-tinkling drinks in hand. Wang, composing the going-away party that recurs throughout his movie, shouts directions to the cast in Mandarin.
Playing an extra in today’s scene, Tan, 41, helps her mother, Daisy, onto a stool. The famous daughter positions herself behind her octogenarian parent-a tiny woman who perches with feet clasped together and hands folded in her lap. Both women flash smiles for the unit photographer. ”It’s wonderful to have her here,” Tan says of Daisy, the source for many of Joy Luck’s vignettes. ”This started out emotionally as the need to write her story.”
That story spent 75 weeks on the New York Times best-seller lists, was translated into 23 languages, and sold more than 2 million copies-the latest of which proclaim on a redesigned cover, ”Now a major motion picture!” A highly personal evocation of the mainland China memories that haunt four women and complicate their relationships with four of their daughters, Tan’s novel became an unlikely sensation. The book’s remarkable success, though, hardly guaranteed a future in celluloid.
Tan first met with Janet Yang, then a Universal executive, who pitched it to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, a year before the book was published. Amblin passed on the project, having just produced 1987’s Empire of the Sun, which was set in China during World War II. Wang-probably the country’s best-known Asian-American director-felt he ”didn’t want to do another Chinese movie” after his fourth film, Eat a Bowl of Tea, premiered to tepid critical reaction. But after reading Tan’s book, he arranged a meeting with the novelist.
A few months later, Creative Artists Agency, which then represented Tan, sent the novel to another client, Oscar-winning screenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man). ”They (CAA) tell you someone’s interested in you, and they tell the other guy that you’re interested in them,” Bass explains wryly. The matchmaking worked: Wang and Tan heartily approved Bass’ plan to streamline the novel’s multiple story lines, framing the movie within the context of a bon voyage celebration and adding extensive voice-overs. Yang, who had become vice president of production at Ixtlan, Oliver Stone’s production company, returned to the project armed with Stone’s heavyweight name. But after a tentative deal with financially unstable Carolco fell through, Tan and Bass decided to write their script on spec.
The book’s 16 interlocking stories, almost 60 speaking parts (50 for women), and nearly all Chinese characters didn’t sound like a recipe for anything, let alone box office candy. Fully expecting to rely on foreign financing, Ixtlan circulated the finished script. Surprisingly, Disney, the most resolutely middlebrow of studios, snapped it up.
Henry Huang and Kathryn Galan, development executives at Disney’s Hollywood Pictures, brought Joy Luck directly to studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. According to Wang, an enthusiastic Katzenberg ”said the script reminded him of Terms of Endearment.” Predictable concerns, though, tempered his enthusiasm. ”He wanted to know that (we) weren’t looking to do something that would just play to art houses,” says Bass. And he didn’t plan to risk much: The filmmakers won creative control by accepting a cut-rate $10.6 million budget.
Only five weeks before filming began, Disney recruited producer Patrick Markey, whose most recent film, the $12 million A River Runs Through It, had earned him a reputation for skilled penny-pinching. After Markey looked at the budget, two Joy Luck stories, set on a lake and the Pacific Ocean, were nixed. ”Whenever you shoot on water, you can figure you’re going to work at 50 percent of speed,” he explains.
In substance, the final screen version of The Joy Luck Club hews closely to Tan’s book. The stories are rearranged for clarity, and the few details altered serve to thrust submerged emotions closer to the surface: In one flashback, a mother’s metaphorical drowning of her child becomes literal. Another mother and her daughter confront their problems openly instead of trailing off into mysterious non sequiturs: ”Never expect anything, only hope,” says the mother; ”Every time you hoped for something I couldn’t deliver, it hurt me,” her daughter replies.
”It’s Hollywood,” Nuyen says. ”Joy Luck represents the fantasy of every misunderstood child….You want to realize that your mother never really was mean to you. In real life that kind of communication rarely happens.”
After 10 weeks of filming in San Francisco, and a month in China, Wang’s first cut ran nearly four hours. He and editor Maysie Hoy lopped off an hour before bringing in Tan and Bass, who-in a departure from standard practice- consulted on cuts.
By the director’s account, the notoriously intrusive Disney kept its hands off Joy Luck until postproduction — in part, Yang speculates, because the studio didn’t know how to give advice on such an unconventional project. When he saw it, Katzenberg ”was a little confused,” says Yang, ”and wanted some of the stories cleaned up.” After screening rough prints, Disney increased the budget slightly to incorporate a composer, more time in the editing room, sound effects, and even a few reshoots-primarily new party footage to ease the transitions between the mothers’ flashback stories.
One pivotal new scene came at the behest of Katzenberg himself (who is also responsible for thinking up the title sequence’s swan-feather motif and faster pacing of the end credits). In Wang’s original cut, the climactic confrontation between the film’s narrator, June (Ming-Na Wen), and her mother, Suyuan (Kieu Chinh), ended in a sweet reconciliation. But in mid-July, only three weeks before Disney began screening Joy Luck for the press, the studio chief suggested concluding the scene on a ”harder note”; Bass then inserted the ”Never expect, only hope” dialogue.
After a dismal summer populated by commercial flops (Super Mario Bros., Another Stakeout, Father Hood), Disney sorely needs the boost a successful Joy Luck could provide. ”On every level, it feels important for them,” says Wang.
Resting on a solid but relatively small base — fans of the novel and the Asian-American community-Disney began a word-of-mouth campaign for Joy Luck weeks ago through press screenings and a celeb-studded L.A. showing, hosted by ardent Joy Luck fan Annette Bening. After its three-city opening took in over $220,000 in just five days, Disney began a carefully staged rollout that will take the movie to 19 cities by September 24 and several hundred screens by early October.