Mothers and Daughters of ‘The Joy Luck Club’ Share Their Immigrant Stories

Based on a novel written by Amy Tan, the 1993 film The Joy Luck Club follows women of four Chinese immigrant families who share their stories about life and hardship. Things don’t come easily to them. (SYJ: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Media intern Sophia Y. Jin

The film is split into chunks, telling the stories of “the Mothers” and the stories of “the Daughters.” It begins at a gathering where three older ladies, “Lindo” (Tsai Chin), “Ying-Ying” (France Nuyen), and “An-Mei” (Lisa Lu), and a young lady, “June” (Ming-Na Wen), who is about the same age as their daughters, sit around a table and play mahjong. Whilst they are chatting and reminiscing, the older ladies remember their lives back in China. 

There are stories about matchmakers,  concubines, wartime conflict, and domestic abuse. The women of the older generation remember their past and how different it was to their present. Their relationships and habits form from these tales, but the daughters don’t always understand why they are brought up in such particular ways. Each generation has its own problems and hardships. 

The mothers struggled with injustices such as gender discrimination against women and wartimes. They made difficult decisions like abandoning their own daughters or putting up with abuse from family members. So in order to find freedom from those shackles of society, the four women found their way to America, the Land of the Free, and give themselves and their families a chance at a better life.

The younger generation, having grown up in America and in western culture, experience and understand things differently. Their parents forced them to study and work hard, to learn piano-like “June” (Ming-Na Wen), “Suyuan’s” (Kieu Chinh) daughter, or become champions at chess-like “Waverly” (Tamlyn Tomita), Lindo’s daughter. Growing up in a very different time and place to their parents, they weren’t afraid to stand up to them; June would refuse to play the piano, and Waverly quit chess. This comes as a shock not only to their parents but also to the viewers of the film, especially those who grew up in Chinese culture.

During the movie, the younger generation grows up and the audience sees the mistakes they make, similar to those made by their parents, but under different circumstances. However, there are moments where the daughters adjust their own lives to improve them. “Rose” (Rosalind Chao) faces problems in her marriage to “Ted” (Andrew McCarthy). She shows that people can learn from their mistakes and thus better their lives. “Lena” (Lauren Tom) learns from her mother that she shouldn’t put up with her husband “Harold” (Michael Paul Chan) and his pettiness. They each pay only for themselves and spend a lot of time calculating who uses what. To begin with, this seemed like a good idea–paying equally means that they viewed each other as equals. However, over time, it felt cold and uncaring. No one should have to live with someone so petty.

Personally, growing up in a Chinese immigrant family, I can relate to the different cultural standards, for example, table manners including the way you compliment the chef, or wait for the oldest person to start eating first, etc. The film also highlights the tense moments when you introduce a partner from a different culture, like Waverly bringing home “Rich” (Christopher Rich), and the pressures of adhering to Chinese traditions, and whether or not the family approves of them. There is a prominent theme in this movie about pleasing the parent, and the child never feeling like they’re good enough. In June’s and Waverly’s lives, it is clear that their relationship with their mother is strained, constantly trying to reach their mothers’ high standards, and feeling crushed when they are unable to meet them. When they face their mothers, they only later, as an adult, find out that June’s mother, “Suyuan” (Kieu Chinh), and Lindo only want the best for them.

Each story in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club shows the difference between the two generations and the cultures they grew up in. The clear-cut sections make this film easy to understand and follow. The audience was kept interested in these different memories, finding out more about the characters and unraveling their past experiences. It is easy for those who grew up in Chinese immigrant families to understand this movie and the difficulties it portrays. Those who have moved from China resonate with the generation of “the Mothers”, and can recant similar struggles as them. A huge Asian cast is rare in a Western film and is encouraging to see not only the Asian cast but also the mainly female cast. It is amazing that the movie focuses on these minorities and shares their stories on the big screen. Rachel Portman‘s film score stays close to Chinese traditional music, and smoothly intertwines within memories of the characters. This film is an excellent example of very real problems and trauma experienced in eastern culture. The Joy Luck Club not only helps bridge the cultural gaps between the different generations within immigrant families but also brings stories that are usually kept within Eastern families to a Western audience.

© Sophia Y. Jin FF2 Media (06/14/2020)

Does The Joy Luck Club pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Absolutely. Filled with stories shared between mothers and their daughters, women talk about many things such as chess, piano, mahjong, and more!


Featured Photo: “Waverly” (Tamlyn Tomita), “Rose” (Rosalind Chao), “June” (Ming-Na Wen), and “Lena” (Lauren Tom)

Top Photo: The Joy Luck Club poster

Middle Photo: “Lindo” (Tsai Chin) and “young Waverly” (Mai Vu)

Bottom Photo: Tamlyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao, Ming-Na Wen, Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, France Nuyen, and Lauren Tom

Photo Credit: Phil Bray




Tags: amy tan, feminism, ff2, FF2Media, immigrants, JoyLuckClub, Rachel Portman, sophiajin, Women, womeninfilm

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Sophia is currently a student of classical music. She joined FF2 Media in 2018, and loves working with everyone on the team because not only does it promote women's roles in films, it also opens her up to more works done by women. Sophia is so glad that there is a space that is full of women alike in their passion to bring more attention to females who are just as capable or even more capable than men in the industry.
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