Development of the project began when Wang approached Tan in 1989 at the time of the novel's release. Concerned about the novel's complex storytelling and character development, they teamed up with Bass in January 1990, who added a farewell party not in the original novel and voiceovers to compress the film's storytelling without changing the main plot. In 1990, Carolco Pictures initially supported the project until the filmmakers turned down the contract for not receiving the creative control that they demanded. After the first draft was written between August and November 1991, the filmmakers shifted to Hollywood Pictures in spring 1992. The filming took place in San Francisco, the novel and the film's main setting, in October 1992 and then in China in February 1993. The filming was completed in March 1993.
The film was privately screened in sneak previews in spring 1993 and film festivals in August and September 1993. It premiered in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco on September 8, 1993. With the film's $10.5 million budget, it was moderately successful in the box office. It received some positive critical reactions but also criticism of its stereotypical presentation of Asian American male characters.
The Joy Luck Club was formed by four women in San Francisco: Lindo Jong (Tsai Chin), Ying-Ying St. Clair (France Nuyen), An-Mei Hsu (Lisa Lu), and Suyuan Woo (Kieu Chinh). The members have mainly played mahjong and told each other's stories over the years. They emigrated from their native country, China, remarried, and gave birth to children in America. Suyuan's daughter June (Ming-Na Wen) replaced her when Suyuan died four months before the time the film is set. The mothers have high hopes for their daughters' success, but the daughters struggle through "anxieties, feelings of inadequacy, and failures." Throughout the film, the mothers and daughters bond by learning to understand each other and by overcoming their conflicts.
The film begins with June's prologue tale. In the prologue, a woman (presumably Suyuan) bought a swan in China from a market vendor who was selling it as "a duck that stretched its neck [to become] a goose." She kept it as her pet and brought it to the United States. When the immigration officials took it away from her, she plucked out only a swan feather instead while she struggled to grab the swan away. For a long time, the woman had kept the feather, planning to someday give the feather to her daughter.
Then the film transits to June's farewell surprise party in San Francisco for her upcoming reunion with her long-lost twin sisters in China. Among the guests are members of The Joy Luck Club, their daughters, other relatives, and friends. The following characters below narrate their journeys to the audience while they reflect upon their pasts.
In China, four-year-old Lindo (Ying Wu) is arranged, by her mother (Xi Meijuan) and the matchmaker (Hsu Ying Li), to be married to Mrs. Huang's son when she grows up. When Lindo turns fifteen (Irene Ng), her mother sends her to Mrs. Huang, so Lindo marries Huang's son, Tyan Hu (William Gong), a pre-pubescent boy who has no interest in her. During four years of childless and loveless marriage, she is frequently abused by her frustrated mother-in-law, who believes Lindo's childlessness is her own fault. Lindo eavesdrops on the servant girl telling her lover that she is pregnant and he willfully abandons her. Lindo realizes her chance to leave the marriage without dishonoring herself, her family and her in-laws. Later, Lindo purportedly ruins her clothes and then claims that she had a nightmare in which Tyan Hu's ancestors threatened to punish her, Tyan Hu and the matchmaker. Then Lindo claims that the ancestors impregnated the servant girl with Tyan Hu's child and her own marriage to him is considered offensive to them. Mrs. Huang does not believe Lindo until Mrs. Huang quickly discovers the servant's pregnancy through inspection. Finally, Lindo claims that the matchmaker intentionally and wrongly paired Lindo and Tyan Hu for more money. Furious, Mrs. Huang orders the matchmaker out of her family's life, allowing the servant girl to have her marriage. Lindo is able to escape the house and moves to Shanghai.
Years later in America, Lindo has a new husband, a son, and a daughter named Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita). Aged between six and nine, Waverly (Mai Vu) has become a chess champion. Annoyed by Lindo using Waverly to "show off" at the streets, Waverly shouts at her mother and decides to quit chess. When she tries to play it again, Waverly loses one chess round, prompting her to retire from chess. Years later, she has a daughter Shoshana from her Chinese ex-husband and is going to marry a Caucasian fiancé, Rich (Christopher Rich), much to Lindo's chagrin. In order to make Lindo like Rich, Waverly brings him to a family dinner, but he fails to impress them especially by improperly using chopsticks and insulting Lindo's cooking by marinating the dish with a sauce, humiliating Waverly. While driving home, Waverly lets Rich know how humiliated she and her family are with him, prompting him to properly learn the Chinese table manners. A while later, at the hair salon, Lindo retells her moments with her own mother and declares that she likes Rich very much. She then gives marital blessings to Waverly and Rich, prompting her and Waverly to reconcile with each other. At June's farewell party, Rich almost successfully uses a chopstick (but accidentally drops a piece), impressing Lindo by trying to respect the Chinese table manners.
In China, Ying-Ying St. Clair was happily married to Lin-Xiao (Russell Wong) with a baby boy in China until Lin-Xiao abuses her and abandons her for an opera singer. Overcome by her depression, Ying-Ying drowns her baby son in the bathtub, which leaves her distraught afterwards because she feels that if she had killed Lin-Xiao earlier, she would not have lost "the thing that mattered the most." Years after she immigrated to America, she has suffered from trauma and has been haunted by her past, worrying her new family, including her daughter Lena (Lauren Tom).
After Ying-Ying finally resolved her years of trauma, Lena shows Ying-Ying around her new apartment with her husband Harold (Michael Paul Chan), who is also Lena's boss. Ying-Ying learns that Lena is uncomfortable with her financial arrangements with Harold. They split the costs of their life evenly with a list of things that they share, making their home life contentious. Seeing that Lena is unhappy with her marriage, Ying-Ying reasserts herself by knocking over a table in the bedroom and causing the vase to fall from the table and break. Hearing the sudden noise, Lena goes to her mother and admits her unhappiness. Ying-Ying replies that Lena should leave and not come back until Harold gives her what she wants. At June's farewell party, Lena is shown to have a new vibrant fiancé, who has given Lena what she wants and is accepting of Ying-Ying.
Nine-year-old An-Mei Hsu (Yi Ding) has been raised with her relatives and grandmother. She is reunited with her long-lost mother (Vivian Wu), who was disowned by her family for her "dalliance" with a wealthy middle-aged man Wu-Tsing shortly after her husband's death, and who arrives to see her dying mother (Lucille Soong). In order to not lose her again, An-Mei moves out with her mother to Wu-Tsing's house against her relatives' wishes for her to remain with them. They claim that in allowing An-Mei live with her and Wu-Tsing, the mother will ruin her future. She finds that Wu-Tsing has another three wives, making An-Mei's mother the Fourth Wife. Later, she learns that the Second Wife (Elizabeth Sung) tricked An-Mei's mother into being raped and impregnated by Wu-Tsing. When the relatives did not believe An-Mei's mother and kicked her out, she reluctantly became Wu-Tsing's Fourth Wife as she had nowhere else to turn. After An-Mei's mother gave birth to a boy, the Second Wife took him away from her and claimed him as her own. After An-Mei discovers the past, her mother ultimately commits suicide by eating "sticky rice balls" laced with opium, choosing the day of her death carefully to threaten Wu-Tsing with the vengeance of her angry ghost. Afraid of this curse, Wu-Tsing vows to raise An-Mei and her half-brother with great care and promises to honor their mother as an honorable first wife. When Second Wife tries to pay respects to An-Mei's late mother, An-Mei screams at the Second Wife, destroys the Second Wife's faux pearl necklace (the Second Wife initially tried to win An-Mei over with a similar necklace), and loudly yells out "Mama!"
Years later in America, An-Mei's daughter Rose (Rosalind Chao) has been dating her boyfriend, Ted Jordan (Andrew McCarthy) since college. Ted is initially attracted to Rose's assertive, forthright nature. When he confronts his aristocratic mother (Diane Baker) for insulting Rose due to her race, Rose is impressed and agrees to marry him. Over the course of their marriage, however, Rose and Ted become distant from each other, mainly because Rose, desperate to prove herself to Ted's milieu, becomes submissive and demure at the cost of her own identity and interests. They have a daughter, Jennifer, but this does not resolve their marital problems. To make matters worse, Ted cheats on her with another woman and neither are actually happy in their marriage. A while later, An-Mei comes for a visit and relays the story of her own mother's fate to Rose. She encourages Rose to stand up for herself and Jennifer against Ted, or nothing will change. To avoid the same fate, Rose reclaims her strength and stands up to Ted by telling him to leave the house and not take their daughter away from her. This compels Ted to take her seriously and not continue taking her for granted. At June's farewell party, it is revealed the couple have reconciled.
In World War II, when the Japanese invaded China, Suyuan Woo escaped the invasion with her twin baby daughters. When Suyuan became ill during her quest for refuge, her cart breaks down, causing the babies to fall. Near death, Suyuan was unable to carry the babies herself and abandoned them along with all of her other possessions, including a photo of herself. Suyuan survived, but was haunted by guilt in the loss of her daughters and never knew what happened to them.
After she remarried in America, Suyuan has high hopes for her new daughter June, but June constantly fails to meet her expectations out of a lack of interest. She performs badly during a piano recital at age nine (Melanie Chang), and when Suyuan pushes her to continue training to be a concert pianist, June refuses, saying that she wishes herself dead like Suyuan's other daughters, an action that offends Suyuan. When June grows into adulthood, at a dinner party a year before Suyuan's passing, Waverly, June's long-time rival whom she is freelancing for, turns down her business ideas, and Suyuan remarks that Waverly and June are not alike and that style is something one's born with and cannot be taught implying Waverly has style. June feels humiliated, believing her mother had betrayed her for being a failure in her eyes, and Lindo shows sympathy for June. The following day, June berates Suyuan for her remarks and admits she could never live up to her high expectations. June laments that Suyuan has always been disappointed with June because June dropped out of college, is not married, and has an unsuccessful career. However, Suyuan gives her a jade necklace and assures June that she is the one who has the unteachable style and that while Waverly was the best in competitions, June always had the best heart which made her mother prouder than she would have been otherwise.
Last Easter before the farewell party, June received the news from the Club that the long-lost twins were alive. When June could not understand the twins' letter written in Chinese, Lindo purportedly mistranslated the letter to make June believe that the twins knew about Suyuan's death and their long-lost half-sister June. Back to the present, when the farewell party ends, Lindo confesses that she wrote letters to the twins and then signed Suyuan's name. June begs Lindo to tell them the truth, but Lindo tells her that it is too late because the twin sisters are anticipating their mother, Suyuan, still believing that Suyuan is alive. A short while later, June's father (Chao-Li Chi) retells the war story of Suyuan and her long-lost twin daughters. Then he gives her the swan feather, which came from Suyuan's—the woman's—swan as explained earlier in the prologue, saying that the feather looks worthless but has "good intentions." When she arrives in China to meet her sisters, June tells them the truth about Suyuan and embraces them. In finally accepting her Chinese heritage, June is able to make peace with her deceased mother.Mothers
Kieu Chinh as Suyuan Woo
Tsai Chin as Lindo Jong
Age 4: Ying Wu
Age 15: Irene Ng
France Nuyen as Ying-Ying St. Clair
Age 16–25: Faye Yu
Lisa Lu as An-Mei Hsu
Age 4: Emmy Yu
Age 9: Yi Ding
Ming-Na Wen as June Woo
Age 9: Melanie Chang
Tamlyn Tomita as Waverly Jong
Age 6–9: Mai Vu
Lauren Tom as Lena St. Clair
Rosalind Chao as Rose Hsu Jordan
Michael Paul Chan as Harold, Lena's Husband
Andrew McCarthy as Ted Jordan
Christopher Rich as Rich
Russell Wong as Lin Xiao
Xi Meijuan as Lindo's Mother
Vivian Wu as An-Mei's Mother
Chao-Li Chi as June's Father (in the novel, Canning Woo)
Victor Wong as Old Chong the Piano Teacher
Hsu Ying Li as the matchmaker
Amy Tan and Academy Award winner Ronald Bass wrote the film adaptation. Wayne Wang, who made prior films about Chinese Americans, such as his first film Chan Is Missing, was the director. Wang, Tan, Bass, and Patrick Markey were the producers. Oliver Stone and Janet Yang were the executive producers. The production designer was Don Burt. Maysie Hoy was the film editor.
When the novel The Joy Luck Club was released in 1989, Wayne Wang approached Amy Tan, the novel's author, with the idea of adapting the novel that he admired into a film. Wang and Tan grew concerned about transforming it into a film, and Wang was almost reluctant to make another film about Chinese Americans since Eat a Bowl of Tea because Wang's prior films had not attracted wide audiences. There were no known Hollywood movies with an all-Asian cast at the time, and making a film with Chinese protagonists was risky especially because Asian actors were not well known to American audiences. Ronald Bass, with whom Wang and Tan teamed up since their meeting at the Hotel Bel-Air in January 1990, analyzed the novel and outlined how to bring it to the screen, with "no single lead character." Because many studios found the novel's "characters and plot [...] too internal and complex" to adapt into a film, Bass added two additional changes without changing the main plot: June Woo's farewell party as the film's timeline setting and the first-person narration in addition to voiceovers to compress the film's storytelling.
A lot of executives and producers are afraid of voiceovers because they say it distances the audience from the action. I felt differently. It allowed you into the inner heart of the narrator [and] to understand their feelings in a way you could never do in dialogue.
Wayne Wang, Amy Tan, and Ronald Bass teamed up with the Ixtlan Corporation, including its staff members, Oliver Stone and Janet Yang, who was the company's vice president and had a profound interest in the project. Before the project, Stone and Wang disagreed with each other about their own portrayals of Chinese people. Wang gave Stone's thriller Year of the Dragon a negative review for portraying Chinese characters as "[mobsters], gangsters, and prostitutes." Stone responded by calling Wang's Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart "boring" for its lack of action. Stone and Wang reconciled their differences enabling them to work together and finally agreed to produce the film together along with other producers.
Carolco Pictures initially agreed to support the project in spring 1990, but the company had fiscal problems, and the filmmakers turned down the contract six months later in fall 1990 due to not receiving the level of creative control that they demanded. Therefore, Tan, Wang, and Bass outlined the screenplay themselves "in a narrative format" over three days in January 1991. Tan and Bass completed the first draft between August and November 1991. When they returned to Ixtlan on March 1992, Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, approved the project as proposed by Stone and Yang, and gave them full creative control. In spring 1992, the Hollywood Pictures agreed to assist production and distribute the film.
Despite that she lacked filmmaking experience, "[Amy] Tan found the process not nearly as bad as she had feared. She was happy that collaborating meant discussions and that they were followed by time to write on her own." Janet Yang said that although several studios were interested, Disney "was the only one to step up to the line". The producers were surprised, but Yang felt in retrospect that Joy Luck "fits in with Disney's agenda—taking a chance on low-budget projects not dependent on star power". She described Disney as being "less hands-on than usual" through not being familiar with the subject matter.
Filming began in San Francisco in October 1992 and then in China in February 1993. Amy Tan did not participate in the casting, even though Tan's mother, aunts, and four-year-old niece were extras in the movie, as well as Janet Yang's parents and Tan herself briefly. The filming was completed in March 1993. The film's budget totaled to $10.5–10.6 million.
Hsu Ying Li (1910–1993), who portrayed the matchmaker in the film, and worked as a culture consultant on set, was killed in a car accident in Oakland, California on April 28, 1993. Therefore, the film is dedicated in her memory in the end credits.
Reviews of The Joy Luck Club were generally positive. CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film an "A+" grade. Critic Gene Siskel, singled out the script and performances, praising the film for presenting images of Asian-Americans outside the narrow range of childhood violinists and spelling bee winners, opining that its main accomplishments were its depiction of how the brutality of the lives of women in China could continue to influence the lives of their American daughters, and its ability to allow audiences to relate to a large group of Chinese-Americans as individuals. Siskel picked it as the seventh of the top ten movies of 1993, while Roger Ebert picked it as the fifth of his own top ten movies of 1993.
It was voted one of the favorite films of 1993 among 1,297 readers of The Arizona Daily Star, ranked number 14 out of 253. However, when the film premiered in the United Kingdom, "some British critics found it more schmaltzy than sour-sweet." It was one of 400 nominated movies as of 1998 to be listed as part AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies, but it failed to be listed in both the 1998 list and the 2007 list.
Ty Burr from Entertainment Weekly graded it a C+ and wrote that the film "covers primal issues of abandonment, infanticide, motherly love, and self-respect, pounds you with pathos [and] is extremely faithful to the novel". Burr found the story "exhausting" and preachy, he criticized the "cringingly bald, full of self-help blather" dialogue, and deemed male characters as "perfidies". However, he found the acting "generous [and] intelligent", and picked the segment of Rosalind Chao and Lisa Lu as "the only one that feels genuinely cinematic [yet] too late to save the movie".
David Denby from The New Yorker called the film "a superb achievement" and praised the director's "impressive visual skills". However, Denby criticized the film writing, "[I]ts tone is relentlessly earnest, its meanings limited or wanly inspirational, and my emotions, rather than well[ed] up, remained small." Moreover, he deemed men in the film as "caricatures" and the mothers' attempts to "teach [their daughters] the lesson of self-worth" as inadequate and pretentious.
Film critic Emanuel Levy graded the film a B+, calling it an "emotionally heart-rending study of generational gap–but also continuity–between Chinese mothers and their Chinese-American daughters" and a visually well-done propaganda for "cultural diversity". However, he also found it too long with "too many stories and [..] flashbacks" and too mainstream and broad to be an art film, especially when it was screened in "prestigious film festivals." Matt Hinrichs from DVD Talk rated the film four and a half stars out of five, commenting, "Despite the cultural and gender-specific nature of the story, [..] there are a lot of overriding themes explored here (such as the daughters fearing that they're repeating their moms' mistakes) that have a universal scope and appeal."
In April 1993, Amy Tan watched the rough cut of The Joy Luck Club and praised it as an emotional tear-jerker. It was thereafter screened to a more sophisticated audience in mid-May, to a broader audience a few weeks later, to the Asian American Journalists Association on the week of August 16, at the Telluride Film Festival on the Labor Day weekend, and at the Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September. The film opened to theatres at limited release in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco on September 8, 1993. It slowly expanded to several hundred theatres by October 1 nationwide, including Salt Lake City, Utah, and St. Petersburg, Florida. It opened in some other cities on October 8, like Austin, Texas. The film earned nearly $33 million in the United States.
The soundtrack was released by Hollywood Records on September 28, 1993. It was composed and produced by Rachel Portman, co-orchestrated by Portman and John Neufeld, conducted by J. A. C. Redford. Chinese instruments were used as well as Western music. Filmtracks website and Jason Ankeny from Allmusic gave the soundtrack four stars out of five. Filmtracks found the music cues not as "outstanding" as Portman's "other singular achievements in her career" but the website noted that the whole album "never becomes too repetitive to enjoy[,]" even when the music cues lack diversity from each other. The first 14 tracks was composed by Rachel Portman. The 15th and final track, "End Titles", was composed by David Arnold, Marvin Hamlisch, and Rachel Portman. The album duration is around 44 minutes.