It is getting safe to go to the movies again. After a summer of big-budget chase scenes—from the rampaging dinosaurs in Jurassic Park to the careening freight train in The Fugitive—stories that value character over action are back in season. The new movies unveiled last week at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals (Sept. 9 to 18) showed a strong trend towards neighborhood sagas of heartrending family conflict. They range from The Snapper, about a father coming to terms with his daughter’s unwanted pregnancy, to Robert De Niro’s directing debut, A Bronx Tale, the story of a hardworking bus driver whose son falls in with gangsters. The festival’s world premières also include two movies about family strife that go into commercial release this week: The Joy Luck Club, an epic about Chinese-American mothers and daughters, and Bopha!, the harrowing drama of a black South African family ripped apart by the struggle against apartheid.
Rigorously adapted from Amy Tan’s best-selling novel, The Joy Luck Club is an ambitious weave of stories. Each is told from the viewpoint of one of the movie’s main characters: four Chinese-born mothers and their four daughters, all of whom live in San Francisco. The narrative hinges on the mothers’ weekly game of mahjongg. June (Ming-Na Wen) is invited to join the game after her mother dies. And the ritual opens up a myriad of painful recollections.
Most movies would abridge a novel as complex as The Joy Luck Club by putting the focus on two or three characters. But the script, which Tan co-wrote with Ron Bass, swallows the book whole. Dense with narration, the movie unfolds as a kaleidoscope of flashbacks involving four sets of daughters, mothers and grandmothers. The pacing is languorous, occasionally laborious. It is like watching a large family open their Christmas presents one at time.
But under the assured hand of directorproducer Wayne Wang, the movie takes on a crystalline beauty. The images are static yet haunting. The actual stories, meanwhile, have cumulative power. Flashbacks to China, filmed on location, include dramas of rape, suicide and infanticide. And the women’s lives begin to merge into a single tragic dilemma: from generation to generation, the daughters long to live up to their mothers’ stubborn expectations while trying to free themselves from the oppressive traditions of the Old World.
There are some cloying aspects to the dovetailed symmetry of the eight lives. All the women are beautiful, successful and affluent, a fact that is simply taken for granted. And all their men are stupid, evil or, at the very least, unfaithful. Still, the movie’s directness is refreshing. The Joy Luck Club is openly manipulative. It offers joy and sadness without subterfuge: full-frontal sentiment. And by delivering the novel to the screen with so little compromise, it represents an impressive feat.
Bopha! explores a father-son conflict with no more subtlety. But as a fact-based drama that incarnates the horror of South African civil strife, its intensity seems utterly appropriate. Based on the play by Percy Mtwa, and directed by actor Morgan Freeman, Bopha! is set in a township on South Africa’s eastern cape in 1980. (The title refers to a doubleedged Zulu word for “arrest” or “detain” that has become a rallying cry against authority.)
Danny Glover plays Micah, a black police sergeant who becomes a pariah within his community—and his family—when he takes
part in the suppression of student protests against the use of the Afrikaner language in schools. As the youth rebellion escalates, Micah slowly discovers that his own son, Zweli (Maynard Eziashi), is one of its leaders.
Glover does a brilliant job of creating empathy for an essentially unsympathetic character. Micah is wedded to his uniform. He is in love with disciplinary ritual. But he has a good heart, a basic sense of decency. And when the cold-blooded thugs from Pretoria’s special forces start to use torture and murder against the township’s teenage insurgents, Micah’s conscience begins to fray. He has to choose between his job and his family. Yet even as his wife, Rosie (Alfre Woodard), and his son are threatening to disown him, he seems paralysed by his position.
As the movie drives to a tragic conclusion, it offers few surprises and little subtext. But it is undeniably powerful. Freeman, filming in Zimbabwe and South Africa, conveys a rich sense of authenticity. And after so many movies that have dramatized South Africa through the eyes of a white hero, it is a relief to see one that does not rely on an intermediary. The cast, meanwhile, is superb. An Aryan-looking Malcolm McDowell makes a chilling impression in the role of Captain De Villiers, a Gestapo-like officer from Pretoria. As Micah’s anguished wife, Woodard cuts to •the quick with a raw, emotionally charged performance. And Glover proves once again that he is one of the most affecting actors working in film.
Hollywood has built its reputation on escapism. But with movies like The Joy Luck Club and Bopha!, stories drawn from the real world may yet prove to be more compelling.
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