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The legacy of 'The Joy Luck Club' and why its success hasn't been repeated

The cast of the 1993 film
The cast of the 1993 film "The Joy Luck Club."
Hollywood Pictures

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"The Joy Luck Club" was released in September, 1993. The film is about four Chinese women who immigrated to the U.S. and how their relationships with their American-born daughters were affected.

Sandra Oh: I saw it in Vancouver and I bawled my eyeballs out. I knew it then, but it took me a much longer time to understand the significance of what that was for me. I had not yet realized, until that moment, that I have never seen myself on screen and the deep significance of that. 

Janet Yang, an executive producer on "The Joy Luck Club," said it wasn’t an easy movie to get made.

Yang: When you're a movie producer, you always have to prepare for the possibility that something will not get made. Especially one that is so unusual that was just breaking all the rules. There was no reason that it should've gotten made, in a way.

“The Joy Luck Club” was one of the first feature films Yang produced. She began her career organizing Chinese film festivals. She eventually got the attention of Steven Spielberg and worked as a consultant on his 1987 film, “Empire of the Sun.”

Yang moved up the ladder at Spielberg’s company. In the late ‘80s, she met with a publisher who thought a new book by first-time novelist Amy Tan would make a great movie. At the time, Tan had only finished three chapters.

Yang: I remember reading them on the plane. It still brings tears to my eyes because I just couldn't believe that I have never read anything that so reflected my own life. I had crossed the barrier of never even seeing any Chinese on screen. But then to read something that was so intimate, it was almost shocking. I couldn't even believe it. 

I think at some point I said to someone that it was like my life was turned inside out. Again, like so many Asian-Americans, we live these duplicitous lives — a private life and a public life. You just don't think that people would be interested. 

“The Joy Luck Club” was published in 1989. It took Yang a few years to get the movie financed because it called for eight actresses in a story that had never really been told. Simply put: the struggles of being a modern day Asian-American.

Eventually, Jeffrey Katzenberg — then the chairman of Walt Disney Studios — thought the film was worth making, even without well-known stars. So Yang and her fellow producers, Ronald Bass and Oliver Stone, decided to give the eight starring roles to actresses that best fit them. Tamlyn Tomita was cast as one of the daughters, Waverly.

Tamlyn Tomita: To this day people [think] of me as Waverly. They thought, Oh, she ain't the approachable one. She's the mean one.

Tomita’s character was the “rebel” of the bunch. She ended up in a relationship with a white man. And it caused a tear in her relationship with her mother, who disapproved. But eventually, her mother came around. 

The film — released in the fall of 1993 — cost $10 million to make and earned more than $30 million domestically. Critics loved the film. Roger Ebert’s four-star review said: “The movie is a celebration of the richness of Asian-American acting talent.” But the film’s successes didn’t really boost the actresses’ careers.

Tomita: When the consideration for Academy Award nominations came out ... in my humble opinion, my mother, Tsai Chin [who plays Lindo], should have been nominated out of the eight of us. She's the most memorably played character. But we had heard from various agents in the industry that we all cancelled each other out. 

We couldn't believe it! And it was a kind of convenient excuse. So have we progressed at all? Yes, but then there's an Asian American saying: "Seven steps forward and eight steps back." 

This lack of movement to get Asian-American stories on the big screen isn’t noted only by Tomita. Sandra Oh says she recognizes are trend in the dearth of Asian-American-centered films.

Oh: There's a real pocket there in the mid-'90s. So "The Joy Luck Club" opened. I had just shot this film in Canada called "The Diary of Evelyn Lau." The following year I shot "Double Happiness." Then I realized that it was a pocket of time that it happened in. 

Why? I don't know, but honestly, I don't want to spend time thinking about it because it's f****** heartbreaking. Why has there not been [more Asian American movies]? It's really about whoever the heads of the studios are. Ask them. 

Janet Yang has been in the room where studio executives make decisions. She says there’s been a shift in the movies the big studios focus on — the reliable superhero/reboot/sequel blockbusters. Those films sometimes feature Asian characters, but the roles are going to the likes of Tilda Swinton, Elizabeth Banks and Scarlett Johansson. Yang says it’s time for the Asian-American community to speak up.

Yang: I haven't been much of a complainer over the years. One big reason is that I've always felt very lucky. I was often the only woman in the room, I was often the only Asian in the room. But I saw that as being a great opportunity. So it felt disingenuous for me to complain. But now is the time to not so much complain, but try to awaken people. 

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