Hollywood has a shaky history when it comes to depictions of Asian Americans in movies. Although portrayed in the entertainment industry since the 19th century, the roles available to Asian actors were stereotypical and inaccurate representations of their community. Sessue Hayakawa, a popular silent film star, even began to set up her own film studio, prompted by Hollywood’s obnoxious and misguided portrayals of Asian Americans. Despite achieving great success and producing 23 films, he left Hollywood in 1922 due to a rise in anti-Asian racism.
When an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck The good ground was filmed in 1931, Anna May Wong (a Chinese-American silent film star) expressed her desire for the role. However, she was ultimately not considered for the role, due to archaic anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited non-white actresses from co-starring with white men. Wong’s coveted role went to a white actress named Luise Rainer, who played the part in yellowface. Indeed, yellowface was commonplace in hollywood at the time, even in 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s (an otherwise perfect movie) is marred by the late Mickey Rooney’s cringe-worthy portrayal of Holly Golightly’s Japanese-American neighbor Mr. Yunioshi.
Enter: Joy of Luck Club in 1993, the first film of its kind to accurately portray the Asian-American people and culture in an empathetic and realistic manner, while employing a cast of Asian and Asian-American actors. The film was groundbreaking at the time and certainly changed the lives of all of its leading actresses. here’s why Joy of Luck Club was a groundbreaking film from the 90s.
First Hollywood film to explore uniquely Asian-American narratives
Based on Amy Tan’s 1989 bestselling novel, Joy of Luck club was the first to deal important Asian-American stories, such as immigration, assimilation, intergenerational trauma, and the intricacies of being raised with Eastern values in a Westernized society. Tan credits his own mother’s stories as inspiration for the source material.
The film tells the story of four elderly women who immigrated to America from China and each woman’s strained relationship with their respective Americanized daughter. The titular “Joy Luck Club” consists of the four older women who meet weekly to play mahjong and share their stories.
It is through these harrowing accounts of their past lives that audiences learn of the enormous sacrifice each woman made to give her daughter a better life, and how their lives are shaped by their clashing Chinese and American cultures. As the women unpack their past trauma, we can see that they are raising their daughters through the prism of this traumatic past, which the daughters know very little about. By sharing these stories, we see these women begin to heal. Joy of Luck club was the first film to delve into these important issues, and did so in a thoughtful and respectful way.
First Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian American cast
It featured an ensemble cast of Asian-American actors, which at the time had never been done before. Before Joy of Luck club, acting roles available to people of Asian descent were rare and largely based on stereotypes. Rosalind Chau, one of the stars of the film, describes her experience playing a Korean bride on MASH POTATOES“Asian American women were objectified,” she said. “Pretty was really all they cared about.”
While numerous studios passed on the film, director Wayne Wang ultimately struck gold with Jeffrey Katzenberg at Walt Disney Studios. The film was well received by critics and audiences, performing well at the box office and grossing $32.9 million on a budget of $10 million. The warm reception seemed to instantly open doors of opportunity for everyone involved in the film.
One of the movie stars Ming-Na Wen notably mentioned Joy of Luck Club as his “green card for Hollywood”. After Joy of Luck club came out, Wen voiced the lead role in Disney’s animated film Mulane. Wen went on to a thriving career, including an appearance in live-action Mulane and a role in Agents of SHIELD. She will also be honored with her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2022. Lauren Tom, who played Lena, was chosen for Ross’ love on Friends, Director Wayne Wang received a personal phone call from Harvey Weinstein (now disgraced) offering to fund his next project Smoke.
More importantly, the film opened the doors to promoting Asian representation in Hollywood. Future Asian-American projects like Save face, Memoirs of a Geisha, boobies rich asian, The farewell, and minari may not have achieved the level of success that everyone has experienced Joy of Luck Club don’t break down that door first.
The point of view of women in cinemas
In the 90s, films led by a female cast were rare, aside from your generic romantic comedy. Arguably, even today there are few women’s films that deal with real issues in the way Joy of Luck club made almost 3 decades ago. The film is not only told from the perspective of multiple generations of women, but also features a predominantly female cast. There had certainly been casts of earlier women’s ensembles Joy of Luck club but not on such a scale—according to the NY Times, 50 of the 60 speaking roles in the film were female. The film even holds up 30 years later because it deals with relevant feminist issues. These women had to fight against patriarchy in their country of origin to improve their socio-economic situation and provide a better life for their families.
Joy of Luck Club offered fully realized and complex female characters. These women were empowered in their lives to go their own way, regardless of their marital status, and undoubtedly inspired future films like wait to expireand First Women’s Club.
Prey director Dan Trachtenberg has revealed that Disney’s Predator prequel will be inspired by the popular video game God of War.
About the Author