No one associated with "The Joy Luck Club," the film version of Amy Tan's best-seller saw it coming.
Not Tan, who was dubious about a big-screen adaptation of her lyrical, deeply personal stories of two generations of Chinese women. Not the director Wayne Wang who, after his "Eat a Bowl of Tea" received a lukewarm response at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, swore off Chinese-American themes. Certainly not Disney's Hollywood Pictures, whose Sept. 8 release of the $11-million movie is a marked departure from the studio's typical mass-market, high-concept fare.
Marketing "The Joy Luck Club," Disney acknowledges, will be a challenge. Word-of-mouth is excellent. Test scores even better. But a virtually all-female, all-Asian project--without stars or an obvious commercial hook--is never an easy sell.
"The movie, on the face of it, is a very specialized product," says Bob Levin, president of Buena Vista Pictures marketing.
"But two-thirds of the way through the first public screening, we realized it was a general-audience movie rather than an art-house film. Everyone relates to parental hopes and dreams, the way each generation informs the next. 'Joy Luck' is no more a 'Chinese' picture than 'Terms of Endearment' is a 'Caucasian' film. The movie has tremendous 'playability.' "
Ronald Bass ("Rain Man"), who wrote the screenplay with Tan, points out, "If we can sell it to Disney, we can sell it to America. The moviegoing public is less interested in anything foreign but, as (Kevin) Costner said in 'Field of Dreams,': 'If you build it, they will come.' "
The 1989 book, which nestled on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for 25 weeks, was not an obvious movie. With 16 interlocking stories and eight main characters, the novel was widely considered "unfilmable." Still, for Wang, it struck a chord. As the Hong Kong-born, Bay-area-educated son of Chinese parents who named him after John Wayne, he knew firsthand of the struggle between Old World values and New World realities. It is a subject that has permeated most of his films, including his much-acclaimed 1982 debut "Chan Is Missing" and 1985's "Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart."
"I went overboard when I came to this country at the age of 17," admits the director, an easy-going, slightly-built 44-year-old, during a rare break at his Skywalker Studios production office. "I had a blond girlfriend, smoked dope, had long hair. In the early 1970s, the pendulum swung back. I spoke and ate Chinese, I reread old Chinese classics. I realize now I'll always be a bouncing ball."
Wang, Tan and Bass formed a creative team that quickly joined forces with Oliver Stone's Ixtlan Corp. Carolco Pictures, with whom Stone had a development deal, agreed to finance the script. Plans changed, however, when the financially ailing independent failed to deliver. Tan and Bass wrote the script on their own, returning to Ixtlan one year later. Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg picked up the project within days.
"Other studios indicated interest, but Disney was the only one to step up to the line," recalls Ixtlan vice president of production Janet Yang, an early supporter of the project and, with Stone, the film's executive producer. "We were surprised at first but, in retrospect, it makes sense. 'Joy Luck' fit in with Disney's agenda--taking a chance on low-budget projects not dependent on star power.
"And, since the studio didn't know the subject matter and isn't known for 'character-driven' movies, it was less hands-on than usual. There's no formula into which you can stick this material. This was totally off the map."
Stone, whom Wang calls the "godfather" of the project, was taken aback by Katzenberg's enthusiasm.
"For us, it was like catching a fish," says the director. "That Jeffrey really wanted to come on the boat stunned me. My knowledge of him seemed to have been of another man. . . . He seemed to have lost his mind. That he left Wayne alone was also amazing. I don't pretend to know the intricacies of Disney policy but this seems like a 'first.' "
Some find Stone's participation equally surprising. With the exception of the upcoming "Heaven and Earth," his films, such as "Platoon" and "J.F.K.," have been stories about men. More to the point, he and Wang were at loggerheads a decade ago.
"We had a verbal war in the press," Wang admits. "I lashed into his 'Year of the Dragon' screenplay, which portrayed the Chinese as Mafioso, gangsters and prostitutes. Stone retaliated by observing if all Chinese were as I depicted them in 'Dim Sum,' they were the most boring people in the world."
"Things evolve all the time," Stone says. "If you wait long enough, you become friends with your enemies. I took a lot of heat for my portrayal of the Chinese as the major heroin importers in the U.S. during the early 1980s. But six years later, newspaper accounts showed I was right."
Disney's leap of faith was rewarded--and the filmmakers' fears calmed--when studio executives viewed the movie in June.
"We knew the film triggers core emotions and goes for the jugular, but you never know how thick someone's armor is," Yang says. "I heard an awful lot of sniffling in the room from the all-male Disney contingent."
Disney plans a marketing campaign that will stress "emotion" over plot, "universality" over the Chinese subject matter. Taking advantage of what it expects will be good reviews and positive word of mouth, Disney will "roll out" the movie slowly--opening in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and expanding slightly each week for a total of several hundred theaters by early October. The film, screened to an enthusiastic Asian-American Journalists Assn. two weeks ago, will be shown at the Telluride Film Festival over the Labor Day Weekend and at the Toronto Film Festival in mid-September. An unexpected "R" rating from the MPAA ratings board (for a few curse words and an act of violence to a child) won't make Disney's job any easier, but the studio has opted not to fight the decision.
"Intellectually, I understand it, but emotionally it's difficult," admits Dick Cook, President of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. "Still, we decided that we probably won't feel it. This is clearly an 'adult' film and the rating will hopefully be overshadowed by things people say and write. Besides, our 'Dead Poets Society,' 'Good Morning, Vietnam,' and 'Pretty Woman' were all rated R--and each took in over $100 million domestically."
Last Saturday night, actress Annette Bening ("Bugsy")--an avid fan of the film--hosted an industry screening of the movie in Westwood followed by a reception at the Armand Hammer Museum. The massive national TV advertising campaign that generally proceeds the release of a movie won't kick in until late September.
"We've lectured ourselves on the fact that (the process) will take patience," Buena Vista's Levin says. "But we're encouraged by the fact that Disney has had considerable success with other 'female-oriented' movies such as 'Beaches' and 'Green Card.' Even if I fail as a marketer, the studio can't lose on this movie. 'Joy Luck Club' is a wonderful picture coming out of an unexpected place. That can only help us on the heels of a summer in which the range of our films wasn't perceived to be great."
On a broader scale, says Yang, the movie is a milestone for Asian-Americans. "Because there are so few Asian images--Suzie Wong, the person at the laundry or the Chinese restaurant--the movie has a historic feeling about it," she says. "This is the first time that a picture coming out of Hollywood has presented such a large company of Asian women playing non-stereotypical roles. And, though Americans have trouble telling Asian faces apart, we were relieved that the strong characterizations made for very little confusion."
Wang, meanwhile, is reuniting with Tan and Bass to adapt Tan's best-selling "The Kitchen God's Wife." Though Disney is interested, it remains to be seen if the studio will spring for the budget, which is expected to be higher than "Joy Luck." Another potential project for Wang is "Smoke," based on Paul Auster's offbeat Christmas story. It would be a move away from the Chinese-American subject matter he once vowed to eschew . . . though Tan, the director adds with a smile, has promised to write another novel for him.
"It's all about 'balance,' " concludes Wang, who, a few weeks ago, opened up a fortune cookie forecasting "money and luck will come to you." "It's the yin and the yang. After 'Joy Luck Club,' I should probably get Quentin Tarantino to write me a men's film."