Friday May 4, 2001
Pearl S. Buck's 1946 bestseller, "Pavilion of Women," comes to the screen at long last as an old-fashioned romantic historical epic set in rural Southern China in 1938, just as the Japanese invade Manchuria. It evokes a way of life on a vast nobleman's estate, where women still live in feudal-era oppression, but one that is on the verge of collapse.
Zhang Yimou covered the same situation with infinitely more artistry and conviction in "Raise the Red Lantern."
This Chinese production does have scope, passion and energy, but its lack of a distinctive style and the fact that it is an English-language film seriously undercuts its impact. Audiences who want to see Chinese films in the first place want to see them in Cantonese or Mandarin with English subtitles (with the exception of old kung fu movies) instead of watching a screenful of Chinese actors stiffened in their performances by their struggle with English. (Minor roles here tend to be dubbed, and poorly, too.)
As a result, for all its women's lib sentiments, "Pavilion of Women" can never rise above the melodrama of a past era, despite a splendid, impassioned portrayal by Willem Dafoe and an affecting one by Luo Yan, the film's producer, who is thankfully more comfortable in English than the rest of the cast with the exception of Anita Loo, who plays the heroine's formidable mother-in-law with considerable crotchety panache.
Luo's Madame Wu is a poised, beautiful woman, a traditional wife, obedient to her husband's mother, a veritable Empress Dowager dragon lady, and to her dissolute, harsh and cranky husband (Shek Sau). To celebrate her 40th birthday, however, Madame Wu embarks on a dramatic departure from her loveless, proscribed existence. She announces that she will choose a concubine for her husband and thereby at last escape his sexual brutality; it's a bold move considering that most wives, miserable or not, would rather kill themselves or their successors than compromise their status.
Madame Wu barely makes it to her own party because she has daringly rushed to the side of her best friend, who would have died in childbirth had not Father Andre (Dafoe), an American missionary with medical training, intervened--he has defied Chinese custom that no man must witness childbirth, and saved her life. Soon Madame Wu, her youngest son, Fengmo (John Cho), and the new concubine, Chiuming (Yi Ding), a pretty orphaned country girl, are taking classes from Father Andre, who runs a nearby orphanage.
There are sparks between the priest and the noblewoman, just as her son falls for his father's concubine. Psychic powers are not needed to sense that trouble is brewing for these four; the only question is whether the Japanese will strike first and how invasion will affect this unhappy quartet.
"Pavilion of Women" plays as little more than a dated potboiler for all its backdrop of impending chaos and wrenching change. Perhaps of greater interest is the reason that the extensive writings of the Nobel Prize-winning Buck, best known for "The Good Earth," were banned in China until 1994: Buck, an American raised in China by her missionary parents, had once given Madame Mao, a mediocre actress in her early career, a bad review.
Pavilion of Women, 2001. R, for sexuality and war images. A Universal Focus presentation of a co-production with Beijing Film Studios in association with the China Film Co-Production Co. Director Yim Ho. Producer Luo Yan. Executive producer Hugo Shong. Screenplay by Luo Yan & Paul R. Collins; based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck. Cinematographer Poon Hang Sang. Editors Duncan Burns and Claudia Finkle. Music Conrad Pope. James Legg. Production designer John Paino. Art director/set designer Huang Xin Ming. Art director/prop designer Joel Chong Kwok Wing. Prop master/set decorator Shen Yu Long. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes. Luo Yan as Madame Wu. Willem Dafoe as Father Andre. John Cho as Fengmo. Yi Ding as Chiuming.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times