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Pavilion of Women (2000) starstar
Mandarin Title: Ting yuan li de nu ren
  Reviewed 2003-02-09: This film was based on Pearl S. Buck's 1946 bestseller of the same name. It may read better than it looks, perhaps because Buck was closer to the time (American-born Buck was reared and Second Look Revieweducated in China by missionaries; she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938) and perhaps because we have over 60 years more perspective on what China has become since that time. What might have been a "Gone With the Wind" for China is instead a story of repressed love set in 1938 in a pre-Revolutionary, pre-Japanese invasion China. That Japanese invasion of Manchuria figures in the final moments of this film, but the focus is on the feudal oppression of women than forbids a dying woman to be attended by a male doctor, and allows men to have multiple concubines, if not multiple wives.

Luo Yan as Madame Wu Ailian and
Willem Dafoe as Father Andre
Top-flight talent betrayed by bargain-basement writing.
A Catholic missionary, who also happens to be a doctor, Father Andre (Willem Dafoe), rescues the woman in danger of dying in childbirth. This violation of mores in the rural town where Andre runs an orphanage, opens the way to other violations. The mistress of the Wu estate, Ailian (Luo Yan), on her 40th birthday drafts a concubine, Chiuming (Yi Ding), to satisfy her husband's sexual demands, which tend toward forced fellatio. It is she who witnesses the lifesaving skills of Father Andre and intervenes to allow him to teach her son — teach him anything but his religion, it is stipulated by the master of the house, Mr. Wu (Shek Sau). The son, Fengmo (John Cho), is disgusted by his father's behavior, patronizing the local prostitutes rather than his mother or even his concubine. But when she and Ailian join him in Father Andre's classes, agreed to by the powerful house matriarch, and Wu's mother (a wonderful Anita Loo), there is magnetic attraction between Andre and Ailian as well as between Chiuming and Fengmo. (John Cho is a familiar face from US films such as American Pie, American Pie 2, American Beauty, Evolution, and Solaris.)

That is the set-up. The execution is moderately successful. I was pleased that the conceit of most foreign film buffs — that of having half the dialog in Cantonese or Mandarin — was abandoned in favor of all-English dialog in this film: I see no redeeming value in subtitles; if you release a film in the US it should be in English. Duh. But despite the powerful performances of Dafoe and Luo (who produced and even wrote some of the screenplay), Pavilion of Women has a difficult time raising the story and the action above the level of what used to be called a dime novel. The cast is not uniformly comfortable discoursing in English, it is true, but only the two leads have a heavy load of dialog (Luo Yan's English is near-perfect). I can't fault the acting, either: everyone performs as well as can be expected.

I wish the same could be said about the script (mostly by Paul Collins) and the direction (by Ho Yim). Although worth a look, at least for Luo, Dafoe, Loo and the cinematography (by Hang-Sang Poon), Pavilion of Women betrays top-flight talent with bargain-basement writing.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me!

Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.