The Joy Luck Club

Directed by Wayne Wang. Rated mature. Opens Friday, September 17, at the Vancouver Centre

Like a cleverly carved Chinese puzzle box, with myriad pieces to slide and jiggle before the centre can be attained, The Joy Luck Club yields up its secrets slowly and in fragments.

There are many stories in this film based on California author Amy Tan's best-selling novel, and the primary challenge for director Wayne Wang and co-screenwriters Tan and Ronald Bass (Rain Man, Sleeping with the Enemy) was structural. Tan's book (more a collection of linked stories than a novel) is delightfully nonlinear in the way it details the relationships of four Chinese American mothers and their American-born daughters.

In the film, a going-away party for one of the daughters–June (Ming-Na Wen), whose mother has recently died and who is going to China to see her long-lost half sisters–provides the framework on which all the stories are built. The result is an episodic movie with a weak narrative thread but richly captivating individual segments. In one virtuoso structuring coup, there is a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, as An Mei (Lisa Lu) tries to save the failing marriage of her daughter Rose (Rosalind Chao) by recounting the story of her own relationship with her mother and her mother's tragic falling-out with her mother. The various scenes of these women's lives in pre-Communist China are the most magical in the film.

Wang has built here on his previous forays into the Chinese American heartland. The Joy Luck Club further explores the Chinese/American mother/daughter theme of his glacially paced and visually limpid Dim Sum (1985) and shares the cinematic elegance of his truly wonderful Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989). The mothers dominate in this film, and the emotional intensity of the relationships between the mothers and daughters is riveting.

I was struck by how like the Hungarian mothers I know these Chinese mothers are–or perhaps this type of woman is simply part of the immigrant experience: the indomitable matriarch whose life is largely devoted to the future happiness of her children. The fathers are shadows on the wall in these stories; here it is Mother who knows best. These are mothers who are sublime masters of the unsaid and of highly Byzantine, but often infallible, logic.

Among many seamless performances, two actors still manage to stand out. Tsai Chin is powerful as Lindo Jong, the mother of a child chess prodigy who later becomes a snobbish, successful beauty who thinks she knows better than Ma. Ha! France Nuyen as Ying Ying St. Clair has one of those faces you can't tear your eyes from on-screen. The scene in which she collects her tragic past to her chest and prepares to roar like a tiger is hypnotic.

The pace flags at times, and the movie is overburdened with voice-overs, but there's a strong emotional integrity at the heart of this Chinese puzzle box. Despite its epic yearnings, sprawling epic it is not. But, as they say, small is beautiful, and The Joy Luck Club blooms during its intricately wrought, intimate moments between mothers and daughters.