Hollywood has a shaky history when it comes to the depictions of Asian-Americans in film. Despite having been represented 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 took to starting his own film studio, incited by Hollywood’s distasteful and erroneous portrayals of Asian-Americans. Despite finding 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’s The Good Earth was being filmed in 1931, Anna May Wong (a Chinese American silent film star) expressed her desire for the role. She was ultimately not considered for the role, however, due to archaic anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited non-white actresses from co-starring with white male leads. The role Wong coveted went to a white actress named Luise Rainer, who played the role in yellowface. Indeed, yellowface was commonplace in Hollywood at the time—even 1961s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (an otherwise perfect film) is tainted with the late Mickey Rooney’s cringe-worthy depiction of Holly Golightly’s Japanese-American neighbor Mr. Yunioshi.
Enter: The Joy Luck Club in 1993, the first movie of its kind to accurately portray Asian-American people and culture in an empathetic and realistic way, while employing a cast of Asian and Asian-American actors. The movie was ground-breaking at the time and certainly changed the lives of all its lead actresses. Here is why The Joy Luck Club was a ground-breaking 90s movie.
First Hollywood Movie to Explore Specifically Asian-American Narratives
Based on Amy Tan’s 1989 best-selling novel, The Joy Luck Club was the first to deal with important Asian-American narratives, such as immigration, assimilation, inter-generational trauma, and the intricacies of being raised with Eastern values in a Westernized society. Tan credits the stories of her own mother as inspiration for the source material.
The film recounts the tale of four elderly women who immigrated to America from China and the strained relationship of each woman with their respective Americanized daughter. The titular “Joy Luck Club” consists of the four elderly women who meet weekly to play mahjong and share their stories.
It is through these harrowing accounts of their past life, that the audience learns of the tremendous sacrifice each woman made to give her daughter a better life, and how their lives are shaped by their conflicting Chinese and American cultures. As the women unpack their past trauma, we can see that they are raising their daughters through the lens of this traumatic past, of which the daughters know very little. Through sharing these stories, we see these women begin to heal. The Joy Luck Club was the first movie to delve into these important issues, and did so thoughtfully and respectfully.
First Hollywood Movie to Feature an All-Asian-American Cast
It featured an ensemble cast of Asian-American actors, which at that time, had never been done before. Before The Joy Luck Club, acting roles available to people of Asian descent were scant and largely based on stereotypes. Rosalind Chau, one of the film’s stars describes her experience playing a Korean bride on M*A*S*H: “Asian American women were objectified,” she said “Pretty was really all that they cared about.”
While many studios passed on the film, director Wayne Wang finally struck gold with Jeffrey Katzenberg at Walt Disney Studios. The movie was well-received by critics and audiences alike, performing well at the box office and earning $32.9 million on a $10 million budget. The warm reception seemed to instantaneously open doors of opportunity for everyone involved with the film.
One of the films stars Ming-Na Wen notably referred to The Joy Luck Club as her “green card to Hollywood.” After The Joy Luck Club was released, Wen voiced the titular part of Disney’s animated movie Mulan. Wen went on to have a burgeoning career, including a cameo in the live-action Mulan and a role in Agents of SHIELD. She will also be honored with her Hollywood Walk of Fame Star in 2022. Lauren Tom who played Lena was cast as Ross’s love interest on Friends, Director Wayne Wang received a personal phone call from the (now disgraced) Harvey Weinstein offering to fund his next project Smoke.
More importantly, the film opened the doors for furthering Asian representation in Hollywood. Future Asian-American projects like Saving Face, Memoirs of a Geisha, Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Minari might not have reached the level of success that each experienced had The Joy Luck Club not first beat down that door.
The Movie Centers Women’s Perspective
In the 90s, movies led by an ensemble women cast were a rarity, aside from your generic romantic comedy. Arguably even today, there are few movies for women that deal with real issues in the way The Joy Luck Club did nearly 3 decades ago. The film is not only told from the perspective of multiple generations of women but also features a predominantly women cast. There had certainly been women ensemble casts predating The Joy luck Club but not of such magnitude—according to NY Times, 50 of the 60 speaking roles in the film were female. The movie holds up even 30 years later as it deals with relevant feminist issues. These women faced battling the patriarchy in their home country to raise their socioeconomic situation and provide a better life to their families.
The Joy Luck Club offered up fully realized and complex female characters. These women held agency in their lives to follow their own path, regardless of their marital status, and no doubt inspired future films like Waiting to Exhale, and First Wives Club.
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