Pearl Buck, a widely-read novelist of the mid-twentieth century, gained more popular than critical acclaim, though her most successful work, The Good Earth, won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and in 1938 she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. (The Good Earth was made into a successful film which was nominated for best film in the 1938 Academy awards.)
Buck’s parents were Presbyterian missionaries in China where she spent most of her early life. She was bilingual and had ample opportunity to observe life in China. While The Good Earth was about rural peasantry, in her 1946 Pavilion of Women Buck focused on a wealthy family; her interest in cross-cultural differences and the oppression of women remains very much in evidence. The novel has been brought to the screen by Luo Yan, a well known film star in China, now a resident of the United States. She produced and co-wrote the film, and stars in its leading role, Madame Wu, an intelligent and sophisticated wife who runs a large household dominated by her matriarchal mother-in-law.
The year is 1938. The film opens with an extended tracking shot that enters the front door of the Wu home and follows the unrolling of a long rug through several rooms, ending up at a shrine–the spiritual and traditional center of the house. Elaborate preparations are underway for a banquet to celebrate Madame Wu’s fortieth birthday. Madame Wu’s surprise is to present her husband (Shek Sau) with a young concubine (Yi Ding), breaking tradition (concubines were taken by men, not arranged by wives, who were considered to be humiliated by the arrangement), but wisely liberating herself from the sexual demands of her husband, a spoiled, impatient scold.
The new relationship doesn’t work out; Mr. Wu ends up spending his time at the local whorehouse, while his concubine and his son (John Cho) fall in love and his wife gets emotionally involved with an American missionary, a Roman Catholic priest (Willem Dafoe) running an orphanage. The relationships develop, along with the themes of customs changing with the generations and contrasting Eastern and Western perspectives and values. It all builds to climactic back-to-back spectacles of a fire in the orphanage and bombing and invasion by the Japanese.
There are some nice passing moments here, like a glimpse of the Chinese opera performing to celebrate the arrival of electricity, but Pavilion of Women, despite first-rate production values and cinematography (Poon Hang Sang), is an anomaly, a brand new film that plays like a relic from fifty years ago. The skilled eye of director Yim Ho (Kitchen, Red Dust) cannot overcome the banalities of Luo Yan’s script nor the extraordinarily stilted performances of the entire cast, save the two leads. Luo Yan, looking to break through to mainstream American audiences, has the film spoken in English, with occasional obvious dubbing, which may explain some of the awkwardness of the performances. Even Dafoe seems weighted down by the script, though he brings his considerable skill to his role. Luo Yan herself is an accomplished actress and radiates star quality, but she cannot save her own film as it unfortunately descends into laughably formulaic melodrama, accompanied by a score of crashing chords and celestial voices, drowned out only by the very loud (internal) ringing of the cliche bell repeatedly tolling its ominous judgement. Just when you might have thought the entire soggy mess had reached its nadir, it concludes with a coda that rivals Spielberg for gratuitous sentimentality in a superfluous add-on.