“Is it selfish if an individual puts his happiness before the happiness of his family?”
Pearl Buck is one of two women who have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Awarded to her in 1938, the Prize recognized a body of writing that focused on stories of China where Buck was reared and educated by her parents who were Presbyterian missionaries. Eventually, she would complete some 38 novels including such well-known titles as “The Good Earth,” “A House Divided,” “China Sky,” “Dragon Seed,” “Kinfolk,” “Imperial Woman,” and “The Rainbow” (her last novel, published posthumously in 1974). While Pearl Buck was alive, five of her books were filmed, the last one being Satan Never Sleeps (1962).
In 1994, China relaxed its ban on her books and as a result, Chinese actress and filmmaker Luo Yan (at that time, working in the United States) decided to develop a film based on Buck’s 1946 novel “Pavilion of Women.” After a lengthy process of arranging financing, obtaining clearance to film in protected areas in China, and collaborating on the screenplay, Luo Yan managed to get the film completed in 1999. It was released theatrically in 2000. Universal has now released Pavilion of Women on DVD in a rather lackluster edition.
The time is the late 1930s. The place — a town in Jiang Su Province, China. Madame Wu has tired of having to meet the sexual demands of her husband and decides to choose a young woman to serve as his concubine. Freed of her husband’s demands, Madame Wu turns to the preparation of her son for marriage. She arranges for Father Andre, a western priest who runs the town’s orphanage, to come to her home to tutor her son. Soon, however, she also becomes interested in the lessons and starts to attend the tutoring sessions herself. Andre and Madame Wu find themselves increasingly drawn to each other. Meanwhile, Madame Wu’s husband has found the young concubine unsatisfactory and has turned to the local brothel for solace while his son has started to get interested in the concubine himself. The developing relationships are all put to the test when the town is invaded by the Japanese.
Perhaps I was in a benevolent mood when I first saw this film, but my initial reaction was of mild content — all pretty predictable, but a few interesting performances and some nice camera work. The more I thought about it, though, the less I liked this concoction. Not being familiar with the original novel, I can’t judge how closely the screenplay conforms to it, but if it’s at all close, it’s easy to see why films based on Buck’s work have fallen out of favour. The story is one of those objectionable paternalistic “all-knowing western male will show the backward easterners the ways of the modern world” sagas. The first part of the tale is nicely handled as we get an intriguing picture of pre-WW2 Chinese society. It’s presented as a matriarchal society where Old Lady (mother of the male head of the family) rules the family roost and where the daughter-in-law effectively controls her husband. The interactions of the various family members are interesting and the setting that involves mainly upper-class Chinese society and a location that is heavily characterized by canal and river transport is fascinating. This part of the film gives a hint of the exotic, but once we are introduced to Father Andre and he starts to teach under Madame Wu’s roof, things become predictable. Too quickly, it becomes obvious that Andre and Madame Wu are going to be a number, and then it’s just a matter of how the relationship is going to be consummated. Meanwhile, Andre is busily introducing his Chinese students to science and just generally being that fount of knowledge and goodness that suggests that all westerners are like gods and easterners merely uneducated unfortunates. Then we throw in the Japanese invasion allowing the sound system to get a bit of a workout and Andre to act nobly. Finally, the music swells as we are confronted with a ludicrous propagandistic finish proclaiming the goodness of youth, the outdoors, and the Communist cause.
As mentioned above, Luo Yan was the prime mover behind this film. She produced it, co-wrote the script, and played the principal part of Madame Wu. It’s in the latter role that she contributes most positively. She manages to invest Madame Wu with an inner strength and resolve that comes across most clearly on the screen. That combined with her beauty makes Madame Wu a very compelling figure. If the story had focused itself on her, it would likely have made for a more successful film. Unfortunately, her story is intertwined with the character of Andre, who once introduced, brings predictability more than anything else to the rest of the film. Andre is played by Willem Dafoe. He brings little passion to the part, preferring instead to present Andre as a low-key, open-faced friend of the people who’s almost too good to be true. After a few obvious glances between Andre and Madame Wu, we know where this is all heading.
Direction is by Yim Ho, a Hong Kong filmmaker active for almost 25 years now and with two particular films of note to his credit — Homecoming (1984) and The Day the Sun Turned Gold (1994). In general, Yim Ho’s handling of the material has no particular inspiration to it, although he does open with a nice continuous take that follows the unrolling of a long carpet runner. Some of the scenes of boats in the canals are nicely composed, using a series of scenic shots intercut with the reactions of people on the boats or of others working along the waterway. The climactic Japanese invasion, however, lacks focus and just seems to be an unorganized sequence of planes buzzing overhead, explosions on the ground, and people running in all directions. It smacks of action sequence just for the sake of action sequence.
Universal’s DVD presentation of Pavilion of Women leaves something to be desired. The image transfer is 1.85:1 anamorphic, but is often disappointing. The image is frequently soft and occasionally hazy with attendant loss of shadow detail. Colours are subdued. In some of the night-time scenes, the image looks quite murky. Some edge enhancement is present, although it’s not a major concern compared to the other problems.
There are both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 English tracks on the disc, but it’s not the sort of film that benefits greatly from them. Aside from the attack scenes at the end, this is a dialogue-driven film. The dialogue is certainly clear and rich-sounding, but there is little directionality. Surround activity is mainly restricted to use during the Japanese attack (when some modest LFE are also apparent) and for the music score, which is pleasant but unmemorable. A French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track is also included. (It should be noted that although the film was made in China, the film’s dialogue was entirely spoken in English, so there is no original Chinese track.)
The supplement package is mundane at best. The most useful item is a set of production notes that provide a satisfactory description of how the film came about. We also get the theatrical trailer and some rather brief cast and crew biographies/filmographies. Advertised DVD-ROM features turn out to be merely links to various Universal websites.
Pavilion of Women is a film that begins promisingly, but soon degenerates into a somewhat objectionable and predictable exercise. It was clearly a labour of love for Luo Yan, but she is undone by a mediocre script and an un-noteworthy performance by Willem Dafoe. Universal’s DVD presentation manages to sink to the film’s level.