The Joy Luck Club and the Limits of the Emotion System

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The mood-cue approach seems to favor films that try to maintain a consistent emotional tone. Yes, filmmakers can shift tones effectively if they cue an audience to expect such a change (as A Day in the Country demonstrates), but navigating such a shift can be tricky (cf. The Lower Depths). It seems easier to take advantage of the emotion system's continuity. Once you establish a mood, you just have to keep pouring on a steady stream of congruent emotion cues, and you've got it made, it would seem.

But can a filmmaker simply keep adding cue after cue? We have seen how brief emotion and longer-lasting mood interact to support each other, but are there limits to an audience's ability maintain this consistency? Can a film's emotional appeal wear itself out by trying to evoke too much emotion over time? Again we must remember that different audiences have different expectations for the pacing of their emotion cues. An audience choosing to follow Stranger than Paradise cannot expect the same density of cuing they would from Raiders of the Lost Ark. But even audience members who have developed a taste for dense emotion cuing rely on the basic emotion system, and that network, like all systems, has its limits. Filmmakers must pace their emotion cues appropriately to maintain a consistent mood. Space the emotion cues too far apart, and the filmmaker is in danger of losing his or her audience's emotions. Pile the cues on indiscriminately, and the audience is in danger of being overwhelmed, even if those cues are emotionally consistent.

Given the variability of different people's emotion systems, it is almost impossible to say that a particular film could exhaust all audiences. We can, however, discuss how a specific film makes it difficult for all but the most dedicated audiences to sustain the emotional appeal across the entire film. By paying attention to the organization and pacing of cues, we can see how a film might test the limits of the emotion system while still maintaining a consistent tone.

Wayne Wang's The Joy Luck Club has an admittedly difficult task: to adapt the complexly interwoven stories of Amy Tan's novel to a mainstream film. Classical Hollywood narration is individualistic, tending toward stories about lone protagonists (or occasionally dual heros, as in the musical and the romance). Characters are hierarchically arranged into "lead" and "supporting" roles. Only rarely does this narrational system present the balanced depiction of several, equally dramatically important main characters. To adapt Tan's novel fully, Wang had to tell the stories of four mother-daughter pairs, and each of these characters presents her encapsulated story in her own voice. The film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club presents eight self-enclosed flashback stories (each one with its own character narrator), as well as the overall framing story in the present. To do so using the tools of classical narration is not an impossible task, but it certainly is a challenge.

Wang begins his film by openly acknowledging the literary nature of his source. The movie begins with a single storytelling voice, accompanied by a lone flute, telling a fable against a solid black frame. Instantly we are attuned to the importance of words in this film. The film's introduction tells us that we should pay attention to the stories being told and to the voice of the storyteller. After the initial credit sequence, the film opens on a crowded party scene, and the camera at first frames the people at a distance down a hallway. Slowly the camera tracks past businessmen having a conversation in Chinese, and then past a crowd watching football on television. The camera roams, seemingly uncertain of who should be the center of interest, until it begins tracking with June. When it follows her through the house toward a mah-jongg game, the camera tells audiences raised on classical narration that June is the central character here. But when the Chinese-American daughters and mothers pair up for a photograph, the camera leaves June and tracks from one character to another, giving each mother and daughter a foregrounded moment of dialogue.

Using camera movement instead of standard cutting lets the camera embody the trajectory the audience must take through the film. We will be asked to allow each of these women to take control briefly of the film's narration, and then we must pass our interest on to the next character narrator. Although we must pay attention most strongly to June's story (the primary action that resolves the film), we must also be willing to attach ourselves to each of the other characters in turn. The film's initial scenes provide an elegant formal model for the audience, but then it must encourage our emotions to follow this path.

June's expository voiceover informs us about the basic relationships among the characters, and the dialogue during the mah-jongg game sets up one of the film's central issues: the older women's concern that their daughters are ignorant and not respectful of their Chinese heritage. The cuing here is densely verbal, as we've been led to expect from the film's opening moments, but there are few clear emotion cues. The opening fable (which is situated in an exotic past) and the discussion of Chinese heritage alerts us that the past will be important and perhaps calls for a vague sense of nostalgia. Like the camera at the beginning of the party scene, however, the film initially stays at an emotional distance, not settling down on any one particular emotional stance.

During the first flashback, we see the first sharply focused emotion cuing. June (via voiceover and visual flashback) tells the story of her public failure at a childhood piano recital. Her humiliation is compounded because her mother, Suyuan, has been engaging in a bragging contest with Lindo, her best friend and enemy, about whose daughter is the most talented. Lindo boasts about her daughter Waverly's prowess in chess, and Suyuan responds by praising June's musical potential. The beginning of the flashback lets us know the truth: that June is a horrible pianist who butchers Dvorak's "Humoresque."

The stage is set for a scene of horrible embarrassment. As Suyuan boasts, we anticipate the humiliation to come at the piano recital. The camera accentuates the character dynamics by intercutting among the mothers and daughters as June at first successfully plays the piece but then self-destructs. The intercutting provides us with access to all the character's emotional states: June and Suyuan's growing humiliation, Waverly and Lindo's smug triumph. The scene is classically constructed to extend the humiliation, encouraging us to feel embarrassment for our main character, June.

Near the end of this first flashback the film makes the first mention of the sole overarching plot concern. We hear how Suyuan was forced to leave her two babies to die in China. When we return from the flashback to the current day, we learn that those babies survived and that the party is to bid June farewell as she goes to visit her Chinese sisters for the first time. Next we discover that the older aunts have not told the newly found sisters that their mother has died, and that June will bear those sad tidings, although she thinks that the sisters already know about their mother's death. This array of information is necessary to set up the larger plot questions structuring the film. Will June find out that her "aunts" have left it to her to inform the sisters in China that their mother has died? How will the sisters react when they hear the news?

By this point The Joy Luck Club has given us a well-constructed emotional sequence (evoking embarrassment) and has established an overall plot question that the film will answer in its closing scenes. Thus far the film's cuing has been well within the norms of classical narrative practice. The difficulty comes when this adaptation starts to do what classical film rarely does: tell separate multiple stories in succession.

There are, of course, omnibus films like Dead of Night in which the characters gather for the explicit purpose of telling such stories. In Dead of Night the characters assemble in a drawing room and tell a series of horrific tales. After each tale, we return to the drawing room where a bit of dialogue allows the narratorship to pass from one storyteller to the next. The tales are held together by a consistent appeal to horror and by the structure of the overall film. The Joy Luck Club, however, attempts a more challenging narrative structure.

After we return from June's flashback and learn of her newly found sisters, we leave the established protagonist to hear and see Lindo's story. This story is not entirely unrelated to June's central concerns (about the babies that June's mother Suyuan left for dead), but neither is it linearly related to those concerns either. When Lindo's voiceover begins, it makes clear the connection between the previous story and the story to come. "How could Suyuan leave those babies? How could my own mother give me up?" she ponders. This voiceover signals a transition to a new story and narrator and sets up a parallel comparison between Suyuan's situation and that of Lindo's mother, providing a continuity that should help smooth the transition.

The connection between the two stories, however, is thematic, not linear. Both deal with loss and seemingly impossible maternal choices that occurred in the past. Lindo's story, however, does not expand our knowledge concerning the central plot questions about Suyuan leaving her babies. At best, the story encourages a deeper understanding of how a loving mother might be led by circumstances to abandon her children. It does nothing to help us understand what motivated a particular mother (Suyuan) to do so. The curiosity raised by June's story is abandoned during the story presented immediately thereafter.

Subsequent stories follow the same pattern of making a thematic connection to June's and Suyuan's dilemmas through words heard at the beginning of the flashback. After Lindo's and her daughter Waverly's stories, we return to the current-day party, and dialogue once again reminds us of the overall plot question: "How terrible for Suyuan to lose her babies and not know if they're alive or dead." Ying Ying turns the narrative inward as she begins her own voiceover leading to her own story. She says, "Only one thing is worse," and she goes on to tell what that thing is: killing one's own child. The next set of mother-daughter flashbacks begins during yet another brief discussion at the party of June's upcoming visit to see her sisters in China. An Mei's voiceover begins, "As a little girl I wondered every day. Worst of all I had to wonder in secret I had no memory of my mother because she was kicked out of the house when I was four." An Mei's story gives us an idea of what it might be like to be a child growing up without knowing her mother. Again we get a thematic variation on the overall plot concern without advancing the state of our overall plot knowledge.

You might say that it is unfair to expect a nontraditionally structured narrative like The Joy Luck Club to behave in a linear fashion. Perhaps it is better to think of this film's structure as being more like a soap opera's with a set of interrelated but still distinct plotlines that interrupt each other rather than advancing a single dominant plotline. Perhaps the progress of The Joy Luck Club depends mostly on a deepening understanding of the overall narrative situation from a variety of perspectives, not on an increasing knowledge of the particular plight of key characters. There is a good deal of truth in this objection. And yet the film itself keeps returning us to the topic of Suyuan, June, and the sisters in China to remind us that this is the central question. More and more these brief mentions in the dialogue serve to remind us of how static the overall plot situation is. We know no more about those Chinese sisters than we did the last time they were mentioned long ago.

The film intermittently picks up its overall plot question only to abandon it quickly without giving us more information. This means that the film more or less abandons one of the primary devices the classical cinema has developed to keep our emotional orientations focused. Mainstream Hollywood narratives tend to be structured around a series of localized questions arranged in a chain that eventually leads to the answer to a global question. At any given moment our emotions maybe engaged by a sequence focused on a small question (e.g., "Will the criminals outrun the cops in this car chase?"). The answer to that small question leads us closer to the answer to the overall question posed by the narrative ("Will the couple be reunited happily?"). We do not have to try to force The Joy Luck Club into this classical mold, but we should recognize that the film comes to emphasize local questions, not global ones.

The questions that matter most in The Joy Luck Club are the questions posed within the individual stories themselves. Will Waverly and Rich (or Lena and Harold, or Rose and Ted) end up together? What will happen to Lindo in her arranged marriage to a boy? Why did An Mei's mother give her up? These questions matter most because they are given the most emotionally concentrated narrative focus, as opposed to the on-again, off-again, static attention to June, Suyuan, and the Chinese sisters. Viewers may put together an overall spin on this film's proceedings, and the film itself provides some formal encouragement to do so (the early camera movements, the brief dialogue reminders that connect flashbacks). The film lurches from one story to another, however, with few emotion cues to prepare us for these shifts. The simple fact that The Joy Luck Club is organized around local stories, questions, and flashbacks does not necessarily damage its emotional appeal, although by choosing this structure the film relinquishes one of the cinema's powerful devices for organizing emotions. The film's emotional task is made even more difficult because of the structure of those flashbacks, which create considerable emotion work for the viewer.

Almost all of the flashbacks in this film takes us to a time and place that we have not visited previously.1 This, in and of itself, does not pose any particular emotional difficulty to the viewer. But in each new place, we have to be introduced to a new set of characters. We already know the adult versions of Lindo, Ying Ying, An Mei, Waverly, Lena, and Rose from the current-day party scene, and the flashbacks take us back to their childhoods. But when we see and hear Lindo's story, we must be introduced to her mother, her tyrannical mother-in-law, and her child husband. An Mei's story requires that we learn about a dizzying array of characters: her mother, An Mei's dying grandmother, her stepfather, and her stepfather's three other wives. Learning these interrelationships takes an investment of time and effort on the audience's part, and the audience is asked to do this over and over again.

Introducing such characters and defining their basic interrelationships is a process generally called "exposition," and it is the work of almost every film, even sequels. As David Bordwell has noted, this early exposition is one of the moments that classical film narration tends to be particularly communicative. Mainstream films try to tell us who the characters are in as condensed a fashion as possible. Without this knowledge early in the film, it is more difficult for audiences to care about these characters, and so the film has an built-in interest in getting the exposition done quickly and efficiently. For most of the rest of the film, classical narration tends to "play its cards close to the chest," not fully and efficiently divulging information but instead parceling it out bit by bit to keep the audience's curiosity engaged.2

These moments of greater communicativeness at the beginning of the film require the audience to attend carefully because the plot information is both rapidly delivered and crucially needed to understand the film. If we are to gain possible emotional pleasure from a film, we recognize that we must initially perform the task of parsing the exposition. This is an investment by the audience, one that is relatively freely given as part of the implicit contract between audience and film. If we want to enjoy the movie, we know from previous experiences that we must learn about the characters' qualities, motivations, and interrelationships. Films may do certain things to encourage audiences to care about the characters initially (for instance, endangering Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark), but generally speaking, filmmakers can count on a certain amount of basic work from their audiences during initial exposition. To obtain the payoff promised by narrative film, we must do some emotion work.

I discuss this phenomenon in rather economic terms ("work," "investment," "contract," "payoff") because those terms make explicit the give-and-take interchange between audience and film. The task of parsing exposition is work, a somewhat tedious effort that films usually try to minimize. If a film asked us to attend to a lengthy period of exposition without providing any emotional payoff, it would exhaust most audiences' initial goodwill. Understanding the exposition may not be much fun, but it opens up the possibility for fun (or other emotional states). One of the appeals of mainstream cinema is that it maximizes our emotional investment. A little emotion work3 (e.g., attending carefully to the character exposition) can help us reap enormous dividends in emotional experience.

Unlike most mainstream films, The Joy Luck Club does not concentrate most of its exposition in its early scenes. Watching the film requires us to engage in the emotion work of comprehending exposition over and over again. This exposition does not pose so large a problem in the original Amy Tan novel because of the different times involved in "reading" print and film. The process of reading the novel takes a significantly longer time than the two-hour-and-nineteen-minute running time of the film, and this time is usually spent in a more dispersed manner. Sizable novels are usually read in doses separated by stretches of nonreading time. To start getting involved with a new set of characters when you pick a novel back up is not as significant an added burden. After all, you're having to focus your attention on the fictional world and resituate yourself vis-a-vis the characters, which is part of the readers' contractual obligation when they return to the novel. Films, however, tend to be viewed in one continuous chunk, and so it seems onerous to ask viewers to reorient themselves toward a new set of film characters over and over, given the norms of mainstream cinema. Of course, the norms for watching a movie on video are different, and many of those who saw The Joy Luck Club on tape probably did not watch it continuously from end to end. But the interruptions in watching a video are often structured around phone calls and bathroom habits instead of narrative structure.

It is interesting to consider how a miniseries adaptation of The Joy Luck Club might differ from the film experience. If the separate stories were parceled out over separate nights, the difficulty with the multiple expositions would be diminished. This hypothetical experience might be more like reading a chapter a night in the novel. The work of understanding expository introductions of new characters would seem to be part of our expected work when we sit down to watch a new episode. In a continuously running film, however, the emotion work required to reorient ourselves to so many new characters is demanding.

As it tells the multileveled story of these interwoven characters, The Joy Luck Club also creates other difficulties for the viewer in the way it handles flashbacks. Classical Hollywood style developed as a way to prevent viewer confusion concerning diegetic space and time. It codified ways to let the audience know when flashbacks began and ended (a zoom into the face, a dissolve, a sound bridge, etc.). Modern Hollywood practice tends not to use such strongly marked devices to delineate flashbacks, but still filmmakers tend to create symmetrical flashbacks. We start with an anchor character in the diegetic present and visit a previous time and place (clearly marked for us by historical objects in the scene). Then time progresses forward from that point, either linearly or in jumps. Modern viewers may no longer need overt cues such as a dissolve to signal a transition, but they can remain confident that a flashback will end by returning us to the same anchor character near our initial departing point in the present.4

The Joy Luck Club, however, uses increasingly intricate flashback structures that are difficult to predict with any confidence. We are never quite certain whether we will be returned to the present or whether we will suddenly switch to another character's flashback. We may return to a time that appears to be the contemporary present, only to learn that we are actually in another level of flashback. The elaborate flashback structure asks the viewer to keep several levels of time and space in mind, which is a significant amount of emotion work.

The film's first flashback is classically symmetrical, starting with June at the party, sending us back to her childhood piano debacle, and then returning us to June at the party. Then June hands the narrative reins over to Auntie Lindo, who guides us from the party to the story of her arranged marriage to a boy husband in China. We return to the present-day, or so it appears from the clothing and furniture styles, when Lindo's daughter Waverly is preparing for her wedding. It is now Waverly's turn to tell her story, and we flashback to her career as a chess prodigy in the sixties in the United States. After Waverly's childhood flashback ends, we return to the contemporary wedding preparation scenes with Waverly and her mother Lindo at a beauty salon. Then Waverly has another flashback to the more recent past, in which she tries to smooth over the cultural tensions between her mother and her white fiance Rich. Waverly's voiceover returns us to the contemporary beauty shop, only to switch us back to her mother's voiceover for a brief glimpse back at her Chinese childhood. After mother and daughter make a limited reconciliation in the beauty salon, we at long last return to the farewell party where we began this entire flashback sequence.

Only then are we sure that the Waverly-Lindo scenes, which seemed to be set in the present, actually took place in the recent past, seemingly a fewyears before the farewell party. The confusion about which contemporary time frame we are seeing, in addition to the complex and asymmetrical structure of the flashback (unexpectedly handing off to another character's perspective), keeps the audience from feeling settled in the film's time scheme.

The flashback sequence involving An Mei and her daughter Rose makes the Lindo-Waverly flashback look simple. The sequence begins with An Mei at the contemporary farewell party. Her voiceover leads us backward to a glimpse of her prepubescent self reminiscing how her mother was thrown out of the house, but we only see her for a few seconds before we flash further back to the moment when the mother accidentally scalds four-year old An Mei with hot soup. Then we move forward to pubescent An Mei, who chooses to go with her mother when she briefly visits the grandmother's household. We lurch forward into contemporary times in which the adult An Mei and her daughter Rose discuss Rose's estranged marriage. Rose's voiceover takes over, and we flashback to see the evolution of Rose and Ted's relationship from their college days through their marriage to their chilly breakup. In a contemporary scene with Rose and her mother, An Mei takes back control of the voiceover and returns to a flashback of her childhood. We follow prepubescent An Mei and her recently reunited mother as they go to live together in her current household, where she is the neglected fourth wife of a rich man. We are introduced to all of the wives and learn their various positions in the house's hierarchy. Then An Mei's nanny tells her the story of why her mother is shunned, and we flash further back to see An Mei's mother being raped and abandoned in disgrace. We return to prepubescent An Mei who discovers her mother's suicide, which gives her a political opportunity to gain power in the household. The Joy Luck Club returns to contemporary times where An Mei is telling this story as a lesson for her daughter. Rose then takes responsibility for her own failures in a conversation with her estranged husband Ted, and we at long last return to the farewell party where Ted and Rose are clearly together as a happy couple.

Got that?

Of course it's easy to make such a complicated time scheme seem impenetrable when you summarize it in print. I do not want to argue that Wayne Wang loses his audience's comprehension. To his credit, Wang manages to tell this incredibly complex story in a manner that most audiences can follow. If the sequence was narratively incomprehensible, it would be easy to explain why it would present difficulties for an audience's emotional engagement. Nonetheless, a sequence can be cognitively comprehendible and yet emotionally difficult because it requires a great deal of emotion work.

Of course we have to learn about who An Mei and her daughter Rose are as part of our expected work in parsing this scene. But in addition we have to learn a whole new cast of characters at every change of time period. We familiarize ourselves with An Mei's grandmother's household, with An Mei's mother and the three other wives who share her household, with the husband who rapes An Mei's mother, and with Ted's family situation. We are so busy learning who everyone is that we have little time to feel the strong emotions called for by the story, which deals with suicidal sacrifice, rape, imminent divorce, and deathbed reconciliations. We are too busy performing emotion work to get the full payoff of the story events.

We do eventually parse the exposition and understand who the various characters are. Shouldn't this allow us to feel emotion at the characters' plight, once we get to know them? The difficulty here is rooted in Wang's attempt to condense so much of the novel's plot into the film version of The Joy Luck Club. The filmmaker tries to give us almost all the emotional highs and lows packed into the novel. We experience the childhood trauma of public embarrassment, the difficulty of being forced into a child marriage, and the life-and-death intrigues to gain power in a hierarchical household. We witness the complications of having cross-racial marriages, and we see marriages break up and reconcile over domestic quarrels. The film shows us the impossibility of pleasing a demanding mother and the enormous sacrifices mothers make. In The Joy Luck Club, mothers lose their children in arranged marriages, by accidental death, by abandoning them in the face of the mother's own imminent death. The story tells us of rape, suicide, unfaithfulness, and in the end a promised reconciliation with long-lost relatives that eventually falls through. This is an enormous number of emotional situations for any film, much less a film that essentially changes its cast of characters so often.

The condensed nature of the storytelling in the film version of The Joy Luck Club does not allow much time for the viewer's emotion system to rest and prepare for the next highly charged emotional situation. Once we have done the emotion work of understanding character exposition, we are then immediately asked to feel an emotion that would befit any film's climax: grief at the loss of a child or a mother's suicide, for instance. Once this harrowing emotional appeal has been made, we are then thrown into another character's story to learn another set of characters before we see yet another emotional climax. Instead of building to a central climax, this film creates a climax for each individual storyline, which is an exhausting exercise for the emotion system. All systems shut down when they reach their limits, and The Joy Luck Club asks us to push toward the limits of the emotion system's capacity to do emotion work and to feel.

Again we should remember that this difficulty is caused by the time-bound structure of the feature film. The film version of The Joy Luck Club is created to be consumed in a single sitting at a pace set by the filmmaker, unlike a book that can be read slowly or quickly and that can be picked up and put down again. Both media have different challenges and advantages in appealing to the emotion system. A film adaptation of a novel is often denigrated because it necessarily has to leave things out that were included in the original story, but I claim that this is not the central distinction in this particular case. The primary advantage of the novel in this instance is that the reader can control the flow of plot information better, allowing us to process the film's emotional appeal at an appropriate pace. The film audience cannot do this. The Joy Luck Club does not allow the audience time to "breathe" before it charges ahead with the next set of highly coordinated emotion cues, and this means that many viewer's emotion systems will be overwhelmed.

Certainly there are individual variations in the emotion system, and people have different tolerances concerning how rapidly they can evaluate emotion cues. In addition, audiences differ in how pleasurable they find the rapid-paced emotion cuing of a genre like melodrama. I do not deny some audiences are able to process fully the rapid-fire emotional appeal of The Joy Luck Club. Given the flexibility of the emotion system, it is difficult to think of a mainstream film that would alienate absolutely everyone's emotional responses. Nevertheless, it is possible to analyze how The Joy Luck

Club is structured to make extraordinary demands on our emotion system. By requiring so much emotion work throughout the film and by condensing so many highly charged events into such a short period of time, the film batters the viewer's emotion system without ever losing our cognitive understanding of the plot. The Joy Luck Club provides a case study for how a film might make an emotional appeal that is internally consistent but yet at variance with the structure of the emotions.

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