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Why Hollywood Bet On “The Joy Luck Club”

After 24 years, The Joy Luck Club remains the only Hollywood film to feature a majority Asian-American cast — a feat most studios are still afraid to attempt today. Now, those behind the 1993 tearjerker tell BuzzFeed News how they pulled off the movie no one thought possible.

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When Janet Yang first read The Joy Luck Club, it was not yet the seminal work of Asian-American literature it’s regarded as today. But after poring over a partially completed manuscript of Amy Tan’s debut novel in 1988 — then only three chapters — the Hollywood producer was forever changed. “I remember reading it and crying and thinking, Oh my god,” she told BuzzFeed News.

Like many Chinese-Americans, Yang lived what she called a “bifurcated” life. “If you’re growing up watching I Dream of Jeannie or Mod Squad or whatever, you never see your life on television, you never see your life in movies, and you start to inhabit this kind of feeling that [your identity] is not allowed,” Yang said over lunch in May 2016. “Nothing that I encountered in school, nothing that I encountered in my work life ever reflected back to me that life that I led.”

But then Yang read The Joy Luck Club, an intricate and poignant story about the cultural divide between four Chinese-American daughters and their immigrant mothers. Moved by Tan’s portrayal of women who shared her struggle, the then-budding producer met with the author soon afterward, in March 1988, determined to bring the book to the big screen. “I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen in my life, per se. I didn’t really know how to navigate the industry very well … I just knew that I really wanted to do The Joy Luck Club.”

But she knew it would be a hard sell. In the late ’80s and decades prior, the very identity “Asian-American” was largely unheard of in mainstream America. In the rare moments when Hollywood showed Asian faces onscreen, the characters were more often written as demeaning stereotypes and relegated to bit or supporting characters, secondary to their white counterparts — roles like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or the characters that pioneering Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong was afforded throughout her career. So to pitch Hollywood a film that centers not just on women but on Asian-American women? And one that portrays them as complex human beings with turbulent interior lives, at that? It was a bold ask.

That’s why for an entire year, nearly everyone in the industry passed on adapting The Joy Luck Club. Even after Tan’s debut novel became a best-seller, moving 275,000 copies upon its first publication, studio executives argued that no one would want to see a movie about Chinese-American women, especially since no stars were attached to it.

Universal / Kobal / REX / Shutterstock, Courtesy Everett Collection

Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) in Sixteen Candles and Anna May Wong in Chinatown Charlie.

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In other words, The Joy Luck Club was a movie that might never have been made. Yet, against all odds, it was not only produced, but also went on to rake in $33 million at the box office after it was released in 1993 — a significant profit for that time, considering that it was only screened in about 600 theaters across the country (compare that figure to Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, which played in 1,600 some theaters later that year and earned $36 million at the box office).

Although the film is somewhat divisive among Asian-Americans, The Joy Luck Club proved that a movie with a majority Asian-American cast could sell tickets, and that one about the struggles of Chinese women could transcend racial boundaries. Yet in the two decades since its release, there has been no other film like The Joy Luck Club, though Tan and Ellen DeGeneres are developing a television series based on the novel.

While Asian actors continue to be largely excluded from mainstream narratives — brushed aside and told that “non-white stars aren’t bankable” — The Joy Luck Club remains the only Hollywood film to have accomplished what most studios are still afraid to try today. Of course, making The Joy Luck Club during a time when Hollywood was even less inclusive than it is now was a daunting task. This is the story of how Asian-Americans pulled off a movie those in the industry never thought possible and proved Hollywood wrong.

Brought up on her mothers' dreams of becoming a doctor and prodigy pianist, Amy Tan never thought she’d sell a book, let alone make a movie based on it. Tan had spent most of her professional life churning out copy as a freelancer, writing fiction in her spare time. It wasn’t until 1987, when her mother was hospitalized for chest pains, that Tan set out to write a book: “I decided that if my mother was okay, I’d get to know her, I’d take her to China, and I’d write a book,” she told People in 1989. Tan, who was then in her late thirties, stuck to her word, completing a collection of stories inspired by the ones her mother told about her life in China. Much to her surprise, The Joy Luck Club turned out to be an instant hit, landing on the New York Times best-seller list in April 1989, and ultimately peaking at the No. 1 spot.

By then, a handful of Hollywood producers had already met with Tan to discuss optioning the novel for film adaptation, but Tan refused every offer. “I had this little worry running through my head: What if the movie was made and it was a terrible depiction of Asian-Americans? What if the movie showed women wearing coolie hats and tight dresses slit up their thighs?” she told the LA Times in 1993.

Enter Wayne Wang, the man behind the indie film Chan Is Missing, a mystery about two Chinese-American cab drivers running amok in San Francisco in search of a man who owes them money. Made on a tiny $22,000 budget, the 1982 dramedy brilliantly depicted the multifaceted, often contradictory nature of the Chinese-American identity; it’s still regarded today as “the pinnacle of Asian-American filmmaking,” and it helped Wang establish a name for himself.

Wang read and “fell in love with” The Joy Luck Club, and had tea with Tan shortly thereafter, in August 1989, to discuss the book and their shared struggle as Asian-American creatives. Their conversation eased Tan’s trepidation about the prospect of making a movie and helped convince her that Wang should be the person to direct the film adaptation of her book — should that come to fruition.

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“At that time, there were still almost no Chinese-American stories being told, and I really believed that stories about Chinese-Americans should be onscreen.”

“At that time, there were still almost no Chinese-American stories being told, and I really believed that stories about Chinese-Americans should be onscreen,” Wang told BuzzFeed News in February. “Although I’m not a woman — and I don’t know some of those stories personally — they just read very authentic because they came from Amy’s mother.” A universal theme in the book also struck a chord with him: “The whole thing about finding your worth was something I could identify with, especially as a Chinese-American during that time.” By then the director had helmed a handful of films, including the critically acclaimed Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) and Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), so he knew better than most how draining it can be to constantly have to remind the world that such stories were worth telling.

“If you look at all the films I made before then, other than Slam Dance, they were all Chinese-American films, and I really believed in carrying that torch. But it was getting to me because it was so hard,” Wang said. He’d learn that The Joy Luck Club was no different. Even in January 1990, after Tan and Wang linked up with Ron Bass, the seasoned screenwriter behind Rain Man, the task still seemed utterly impossible at times.

Bass, a lawyer turned screenwriter, discovered The Joy Luck Club through his former colleague Barry Hirsch, currently one of Hollywood’s most powerful attorneys today, who represented Tan back in the day. Hirsch, who knew that Tan and Wang were looking for someone to write the movie, set up the first meeting between the three in Los Angeles.

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Upon meeting Bass, Tan immediately brought up one major challenge in adapting her convoluted novel: How does one adapt 16 chapters of a book about three generations of Chinese women into a concise yet compelling narrative for the big screen? The first chapter alone, for instance, begins with Jing-mei “June” Woo, who has reluctantly taken over the seat of her recently deceased mother, Suyuan, at the mahjong table; the narrative then plunges into a flashback recounting Suyuan’s harrowing exodus from Kweilin during wartime, before returning to the present day, where June contends with her mother’s death. These are gripping stories about complex lives which Tan painstakingly details, a process she somehow manages to repeat in every subsequent chapter.

“Wayne and I mentioned the problem of so many stories, so many characters, how everyone thought it impossible to make a coherent movie out of the whole book,” Tan explained.

But Bass had a plan. “The first thing [Tan] said to me was, ‘How many of my characters do you want to throw out?’” Bass recalled, his eyes twinkling as he sat outside of a Beverly Hills hotel in March. “I said, ‘None,’ and she was stunned. Everyone else had told her if you’re going to make a movie, you can’t have eight people as stars.”

The screenwriter, however, saw it differently. “That’s the whole point of it: You have all these people, and their stories interlock … It makes a tapestry of all human nature.” Together, Bass and Tan pored over and annotated her book, the former guiding the latter: “I said, ‘We are going to figure out what is the core emotional transaction that's going on in [each] moment.’”

Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

With eight main characters and multiple time periods, The Joy Luck Club posed a challenge to screenwriters Amy Tan and Ron Bass.

But even with the “two-billion-dollar man” enlisted to help write the screenplay, no studio wanted the adaptation. “We could not get a deal from anyone,” Wang said. That’s why the pair ultimately wrote the script on speculation. “That was kind of depressing … The characters are so great, the stories are so powerful, [yet] nobody wanted to make the movie because it was about Chinese-Americans.”

Eventually Yang, the producer who’d been in touch with Tan, stepped in. She’d recently established a production company, Ixtlan, with filmmaker Oliver Stone, the renowned director behind Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK.

“Oliver looked at [the script] and said, ‘I don’t have time to work on it, but I’ll be glad to put my name on it as an executive producer if that will help you,’” Bass remembered. “We all said, ‘Oh, it ain’t gonna hurt.’” (A spokesperson for Stone told BuzzFeed News, “He’s very proud of the film and glad they got it made. It was a hard one, and one of the few in the American-Asian genre.")

“That’s the whole point of it: You have all these people, and their stories interlock … It makes a tapestry of all human nature.”

In the end, every studio they talked to turned them down — except one. Hollywood Pictures, a division of the Walt Disney Company, was run then by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the “unsung hero” behind the project, according to Bass. “In those days, he was legendary … Other people think he’s tough to work for; I thought he was fabulous to work for: to the point but very generous and understanding.” (Katzenberg declined to comment for this story.)

As Yang recalled it, “Jeffrey basically bought the project in the room,” agreeing to finance it with $10.5 million. It was a moderate budget, but it was enough to consider the funding secured. The quartet then shifted their focus to finding their massive cast.

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“I remember a lot of people, when they read the script, they said to us, ‘This is a wonderful, terrific script, but I don’t think you can cast four mothers and four daughters who are good enough to carry this script,’” Wang said, disbelief still lingering in his voice. (Perhaps even more offensive, some people wondered how Wang expected the audience to be able to tell the Asian actors apart.)

Although casting the film did require months of searching, it was less challenging than their naysayers had anticipated — and it certainly wasn’t impossible.

Heidi Levitt, the casting director of The Joy Luck Club, dug through talent agencies, reached out to Asian-American theater groups in various cities across the country, and set up open casting calls in New York City and San Francisco where anyone in the public could audition for a part.

And a lot of people did go out for parts in Wang’s film. At the open casting call that took place in Flushing, Queens, for example, 2,000 Asian women — many of whom came in pairs of mothers and daughters — showed up to audition.

“I told them, unless you’re an Asian-American who had gone through this type of experience, I really don’t feel an actor ... could really portray that kind of displacement and sense of lacking that an Asian-American often feels.”

From the get-go, Levitt and Wang decided they would cast Asians of any ethnicity, “as long as they didn’t look obviously like they were Japanese or Vietnamese.” Wang set that stipulation — deciding not to limit his cast to solely actors of Chinese descent — because for years, he had observed the dearth of substantial roles for all Asians in Hollywood and wanted to grant them the opportunity to be in his movie.

Wang personally sought actors who could embody the characters from Tan’s novel without leaning into stereotypes, which Wang said actors at the time tended to do. For him, it was important that they were not “overacting” but that they “believed in the part, in the character, and what they were saying.” “Because there are so few roles to begin with — and the roles generally are stereotypes … they tend to kind of overdo it,” Wang said of some of the actors he saw.

Courtesy of Valli O'Reilly, "The Joy Luck Club" makeup artist

Makeup tests photographed during the filming of The Joy Luck Club. Clockwise from top left: Ming-Na Wen (June), Lauren Tom (Lena), Tamlyn Tomita (Waverly), and Rosalind Chao (Rose).

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The filmmakers found their June — one of the principal characters, the daughter with the “best quality heart” — in actor Ming-Na Wen. At that time, Wen had recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and had never worked on a film before. “I just felt like, ‘This is my destiny!’” she told BuzzFeed News with a big laugh. During her audition, she opened up about her experience growing up Asian-American in a predominantly white town and how much certain elements of Tan’s novel resonated with her. “I told them, unless you’re an Asian-American who had gone through this type of experience, I really don’t feel an actor who, let’s say, was very secure in their ethnicity of being Chinese could really portray that kind of displacement and sense of lacking that an Asian-American often feels.”

Soon after, Wang cast Lauren Tom as the meek Lena St. Clair, Rosalind Chao as the equally self-sacrificing Rose Hsu Jordan, and Tamlyn Tomita as the snobbish and headstrong chess whiz Waverly Jong.

“You must be very passionate, very patient, and very sacrificing to stay as an Asian actor in Hollywood.”

Although Wang welcomed “Asians across the board,” Tomita had some misgivings about auditioning for The Joy Luck Club as a Japanese-Filipino actor, as a major recent controversy was still fresh in her mind. Just a couple years before, in 1990, it was announced that the hit London musical Miss Saigon would open on Broadway; Jonathan Pryce, a white actor in yellowface, was enlisted to continue playing his Eurasian character onstage. As a result, playwright David Henry Hwang and actor B.D. Wong slammed Actors' Equity — the union representing theater actors — for allowing it. Despite fervent objections from Asian-American actors across the country, the casting was ultimately approved. This public dispute made Tomita reluctant to audition for her part in the film because she was not Chinese. She said she’d thought to herself, “Yeah, I should go in for [the part] ’cause I have this face, but then because of our collective Asian-American entertainment history, it should be a Chinese girl.”

Concerned about how she might be perceived by audiences, Tomita made it a point to be up front about her background in the audition room. “I was like, ‘Just as long as you know I’m of Japanese-Filipino heritage.’” She was confirmed for the role.

Within months, all of the Joy Luck Club women were assembled, the four daughters matched with their onscreen mothers, the latter of whom were all revered actors with long-standing careers in Hollywood. As Tomita explained it, there was Kieu Chinh, “the Elizabeth Taylor of Vietnam”; France Nuyen, the South Pacific Broadway actor “who took the entertainment world by storm”; Lisa Lu, “who came up with Marlon Brando”; and Tsai Chin, whose father was “the most famous Beijing opera star.”

Thinking back on the months she spent casting The Joy Luck Club, Levitt recalled, “People would say to me, ‘How did you find these actors?’ as though I found them under a stone.” But with the exception of Wen, the rest of the women had all worked extensively in Hollywood prior to The Joy Luck Club, like Tsai Chin, who played Lindo, Waverly's stone-faced, impenetrable mother.

Right away, the eight actors connected, bonding over their shared identities. They played poker at game nights hosted by Wen, and they shopped and together explored San Francisco, where The Joy Luck Club filmed. The younger actors turned to the older women, who Wen described as being like their “moms and aunties,” for stories about the obstacles they had to overcome in Hollywood.

Tomita gushed over Chin, who played her onscreen mother. Together, the two captured the seemingly impossible task of pleasing an immigrant mother in a heartrending hair salon scene that concludes with both characters reconciling in a fit of laughter and tears. “Tsai Chin left Shanghai at 16 to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She became a classically trained actress, who happened to be of Chinese descent,” Tomita said. "Do you think she should be as well-regarded as Judi Dench or Glenda Jackson or all the Harry Potter actors? Of course! But because she's Chinese, she didn't have a shot.”

Kieu Chinh, who plays the mother of Wen’s character June, was a star in Vietnam before the war forced her to flee the country in 1975 after the Fall of Saigon; she became a US citizen, with help from her friend Tippi Hedren, who sponsored her. Although Kieu Chinh has worked steadily in Hollywood since 1977, beginning with an episode of M*A*S*H, it hasn’t always been easy. She was signed to William Morris Endeavor Entertainment when she first arrived in Hollywood, but she lost representation due to the lack of jobs available to her. “You must be very passionate, very patient, and very sacrificing to stay as an Asian actor in Hollywood,” Kieu Chinh told BuzzFeed News in January.

Together, the women made it their mission to tell the Joy Luck Club story and thereby do their part in correcting Hollywood’s representation of Asian-Americans. “They worked really hard, and they really appreciated the roles because they knew that it was kind of hard to come by,” Wang said.

The cast also had high praise for the director. “For a guy to be surrounded by that much estrogen and remain sane — he was fantastic,” Wen said with a laugh. All of the actors who spoke to BuzzFeed News described Wang as a quiet, unobtrusive director who had his own vision of how The Joy Luck Club ought to be brought to life. For him, less was more.

“He’s always trying to capture the truth and the most real moments within,” Wen said, referencing a celebratory scene that takes place near the end of the movie: To bid June farewell before her trip to China, Waverly proposes a toast, popping open a bottle of champagne, which spews out onto all of them. “That was the scene that ended up in the movie because I think for him, he just loved the real reaction and the messiness of it all,” she said. “For him it was always about being as simple and as real and truthful as possible to each moment.”

The Joy Luck Club was unprecedented simply because it told a story from the point of view of Asian-American women. But beyond that, it was also groundbreaking for its portrayal of Asian and Asian-American women as fully realized human beings and not one-note characters. It presented Asian-American actors with the rare opportunity to present a counter-narrative to the “very limited stereotypical palette,” as Levitt explained it, though some argue that the film and Tan’s book can both be construed as “ethnic” works that perpetuate the idea of the exotic East.

But in The Joy Luck Club, there are no dragon ladies or China dolls — only women born into a patriarchal society, who make the most of their circumstances. There’s the self-assured and defiant Lindo, who schemes her way out of an arranged marriage, and the vigilant, strong-willed An-Mei Hsu (Lisa Lu), who learns to value herself after witnessing the tragic life of her mother (Vivian Wu), who was raped and forced into a concubinage with an older merchant. Neither of the women are “docile,” nor do they submit to the misery they are dealt — even the less moral characters, like the cunning “Second Wife” (Elizabeth Sung), who takes measures to retain her status, tricking An-Mei’s mother into being raped and then taking the baby as her own son.

Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection / Via youtube.com

(From top) An-Mei's mother (Vivian Wu), who was forced into concubinage; Ying-Ying (Yu Feihong) and her first child; and Rose confronting her husband in the rain.

Sung praised the way the film tackles the misogyny of traditional Chinese values of decades past. “It really speaks to and about women at that time,” she told BuzzFeed News in January. She explained that her character, who is middle-aged and unable to have children, resorts to cruelty “out of the desperate need to survive.”

Even Ying-Ying St. Clair (France Nuyen and Yu Feihong) — who drowns her own son after her abusive husband abandons her — recuperates from the years of trauma she endured and sees to it that her daughter, born years later in America, doesn’t repeat her mistake of staying in an unhappy marriage.

As the mothers’ stories condemn the ways some traditional Chinese beliefs hurt women, The Joy Luck Club also highlights the sexism still prevalent in modern-day America throughout the daughters’ story arcs.

Lena, soft-spoken and ghostlike, is visibly unhappy with her miser of a partner, Harold, and the lack of equality between them. That notion is clearest during her inner monologue as she sits with him in a dinner scene following a discussion about evenly splitting the bill: “So what if I had a salad and he had three courses? We were equals... Except that I work in his firm, and he pays himself seven times more than he pays me,” she thinks to herself. Eventually, on the advice of her mother, Lena finally stands up to her husband and leaves him.

Perhaps the clearest instance in which a woman demonstrates agency occurs when Rose Hsu Jordan confronts her neglectful husband after being reminded by her mother to “know her worth.” Standing outside her house in the rain, Rose tells her husband, “You're not taking my house. You're not taking my daughter. You're not taking any part of me.”

To this day, when fans talk to Chao about The Joy Luck Club, they always bring up the rain scene “because it's a woman standing up for herself,” Chao told BuzzFeed News last September. “It's not that uncommon, what happens to a lot of women when they get into relationships: They start to lose a lot of themselves.” It’s a universal experience that Asian-American women also face, but you wouldn’t know that from the majority of Hollywood’s films. More often than not, Asian and Asian-American women are cast to serve as nothing more than beautiful, often hypersexualized props, rarely presented as complex individuals with intricate emotional lives.

While The Joy Luck Club was one of a kind for its depiction of Asian and Asian-American women with wants and woes, it was not a perfect film, especially in the eyes of some Asian men, who found fault with how the film represented them. Take it from Ah Wong, a resident of Westminster, California, who saw the film in October 1993: “No, I did not walk out of a screening of The Joy Luck Club with soppy eyes and tissues covering my nose like many viewers did. But I almost pulled my jacket over my head in order to cover myself from feeling terribly embarrassed and from being a Chinese male,” he wrote in a brief review for the LA Times. “Almost every single Chinese male character was portrayed as evil and irresponsible. We are either the macho male chauvinist who enjoys taking advantage of innocent virgin women, or collect concubines as trophies, or push them to leave us because we are cold and incapable of giving warmth and love.”

Since then, the men in Wang’s film have been the topic of numerous impassioned online rants and essays ruminating on the film’s impact.

Wang laughed off the criticism — then and now — and said that there is truth in his depiction of Asian men. “I mean, Chinese men are kind of awful,” he said with a chuckle. “As a man, I sometimes get embarrassed, especially when I’m in Asia, and I see how Chinese men are with their wives or daughters. To this day, women are not favored in families … it’s a very macho culture,” as exemplified in Tan’s novel, which was inspired by the real life of Tan’s mother.

Russell Wong, who played Joy Luck’s watermelon-chopping womanizer Lin Xiao, told BuzzFeed News, “Well, if there were more Asian-American films with different stories, it wouldn’t matter, y’know what I mean?”

As for the fictional men in his film, Wang said they were written as foils to the women in the story. “They came from the book, so I wanted to be true to the book,” he said, though he did concede that the Asian men in his film “were a bit more negative.” Were he to make the film again, “I would maybe balance it out a little bit more,” he added.

However, Wang did try to balance out the “negative” portrayals of Asian men with one character, Lena’s new boyfriend, Ken (Philip Moon), who is shown briefly in a scene at June’s dinner party. “There’s a cinematic history of the Asian man always treating the Asian woman horribly,” Moon told BuzzFeed News in February. “I was happy playing the flip side.”

For California-born Michael Paul Chan — the actor behind Lena’s oblivious, pennypinching husband — his role in The Joy Luck Club was the first time he didn’t have to fabricate a foreign accent for a role. Chan explained to BuzzFeed News in January how most of the parts available to him in the 15 years prior to Wang’s film were all gangsters who spoke with thick Asian accents. “When I first got to Hollywood … I quickly realized I’m only going to work maybe once or twice a year talking like this,” he said of his everyday manner of speaking. “It wasn’t until The Joy Luck Club that I used this voice.”

Although there are Caucasian men in The Joy Luck Club, Wang and the team weren’t concerned that the studio would “whitewash” the film or even demand that they highlight one of the Caucasian characters, and Disney never pressured Wang to cast more “bankable” star actors. However, Yang did recall one incident that caused an infuriated Wang to storm out of the room. At a marketing meeting, she and Wang were shown a handful of spec movie posters for the film. “None of them had a full-on photographic, realistic view of any of the actors — they were from behind, or were done in sort of paper-cut style,” she said. To her, it was an indication that Disney was anxious over how the film would be received, should they highlight Asian-Americans on the promotional materials. “It was one of the few times I saw Wayne lose his temper,” Yang said. “They wouldn't admit it. They would never say, but it was so obvious that they were trying to kind of whitewash it by not representing an actual Asian face.” (Disney did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for a comment.)

The Joy Luck Club creates such a powerful sense of its older women's suffering, and presents such brutalizing events in several of their lives, that its impact achieves a welcome degree of universality,” reads the glowing 1993 review from The New York Times. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, lauding it as “a flowering of talent that has been waiting so long to be celebrated … one of the most touching and moving of the year's films.” The LA Times similarly praised the eight leads as being “the pick of several generations of acting talent” and Wang for his “evenhanded but caring direction.”

Despite rave critical and commercial response to the film, however, there has yet to be another major studio-backed live-action Asian-American film to date. There was Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993), Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), and Alice Wu’s Saving Face (2004) — all notable, frequently cited Asian-American films — but they were independent films, made without studio funding.

“I think we all came out of that experience thinking that more opportunities would come up — and it did, but the doors didn't widen up as wide as we would've liked it to,” Tomita said.

After The Joy Luck Club, several of the actors did land major projects. Wen joined the cast of ER and voiced the cross-dressing protagonist in Mulan. Lucille Soong, who currently plays Grandma Huang on Fresh Off the Boat, got her break playing the bedridden grandmother in one of the film’s many flashback scenes. Although the film may have propelled some actors into fame, The Joy Luck Club did not have the intended, enduring effect on the kinds of Asian and Asian-American characters being written in Hollywood.

Looking back on the early 1990s, producer Yang called those years a “golden period” of Hollywood. “If I had an idea for a movie, then I would call one of several different studio executives, and more often than not, they would come back and say, ‘OK, let's develop that,’” she mused. “When you live through those periods, you don't think there's anything different about it.” But in hindsight, it was unique era in which “one person could just greenlight a movie, Jeffrey Katzenberg could just say, ‘Yeah, I want to do this.’”

It was perhaps the only moment in history in which The Joy Luck Club could have been made, Levitt, the casting director, speculated. She called it the “little window of the $10 million movie that opened and shut” and argued, “We would be making The Joy Luck Club today, if we were lucky, for $3 million ’cause people wouldn't sell that movie.”

Today Hollywood is noticeably saturated in sequels, franchises, and movies swathed in special effects. It’s unlikely and much harder for a film like The Joy Luck Club to get greenlit and funded; studios are more inclined to invest in known franchises rather than original stories. “Even an American, Caucasian-oriented story like Manchester by the Sea — I don't even understand how it got made,” Wang said. “It’s all about whether a film will make money or not, and Asian-American subject matters still — in their minds — won’t make money.”

“I still like to believe if there's something really good, people will recognize it ... I don't want people to give up hope that it's possible.”

While Amy Tan and Ron Bass earned BAFTA and Writers Guild of America Award nominations for their screenplay of the film, The Joy Luck Club did not receive any Golden Globe or Oscar nominations. But Wang didn’t seem bothered by the film’s lack of Academy Awards acclaim and offered instead a memory from the days prior to the film’s opening.

At a test screening of the movie north of Hollywood, the director had walked into the theater to find hordes of couples waiting in their seats for the movie to begin, but he panicked when he saw that they weren’t Asian couples: “Oh god, we are so dead,” he thought to himself, immediately assuming the audience wouldn’t connect with his film. But midway through the screening, Wang began to hear sniffles, then weeping, and finally laughter. “To sit there in the middle of that audience and to feel their energy was truly amazing,” said Wang. “That was enough for me on all levels.”

Although Wang seemed more cynical about the current state of filmmaking — and whether the industry would soon embrace Asian-American actors — others expressed optimism. “I still like to believe if there's something really good, people will recognize it,” Yang said. “I don't want people to give up hope that it's possible.”

Wen, an outspoken champion for inclusivity who slammed Scarlett Johansson’s controversial role in the Ghost in the Shell last year, expressed a similar sentiment. “As you get older you start to realize, well, there's just certain things that don't really change,” she admitted, allowing that she becomes “fatigued” whenever backlash against a miscast role builds and persists. “I'd rather talk about the good things that Amy Tan has done with her book and with our film.”

For her, The Joy Luck Club was “everything,” and it instilled in her the enthusiasm “to forge ahead and do even more as an Asian-American actress for the next generation of actors.”

“I take more Amy Tan's route, where if you're going to write something, you wanna write something that has universality. The purpose is just to tell great stories that everyone can relate to. Because ultimately, entertainment is about ... touching people's hearts, and I feel that that's the best way to get to people.” It certainly worked for The Joy Luck Club. ●


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Susan Cheng is an entertainment reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Susan Cheng at susan.cheng@buzzfeed.com.

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