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Pavilion of Women

Starring Willem Dafoe and Luo Yan;Shek Sau, Yi Ding, Koh Chieng Mun and Anita Loo
Screenplay by Luo Yan & Paul R. Collins
Adapted from the novel by Pearl S. Buck
Directed by Yim Ho

IN SHORT: For the arthouse. [Rated R for sexuality and war images. 119 minutes]

What happens when you take a soap opera story fit for eight nights of prime-time programming, back in the days when miniseries were part of prime time programming, and scrunch it into two hours. You get Pavilion of Women, a film that virtually bursts at the seams with the power of overcompressed subplots yearning to burst free; that drowns under the weight of a musical score so awful that we're putting it in black and white. It is strident. It is mixed way too high against the dialog track and does the one thing that music should never do. It calls attention to itself.

As for the story, well, we happen to like clash of culture tales as a matter of course. While teevee shows prefer to go for the happy ending, this tale makes more than a nod to Madame Butterfly -- either a Japanese version or the Puccini opera, both are in this story so take your pick. If you're not into tragedy, there's a happy coda tacked on at the end. It was enough to make us want to throw up our hands and surrender, once again with the feeling gnawing down in the pit of our stomach that this adaptation tried to get everything in the source material onto the big screen. We don't compare to Source Material. If you'd like to read it, click here to purchase and support the site.

The China seen in the story, pre-war 1938, is a rich one. More specifically the wealthy family Wu, in its large estate behind big doors and canals shielding the upper class within from the unseen rabble outside. There is as rigid a demarcation of place inside this house as there is in the society we only know from history books. The servants are above the rabble; the mistress of the house, Madame Wu (Luo Yan) rules them but is subservient to her husband Lord Wu (Shek Sau). Even more ironic is that the Lord of the manner is a cringing worm underneath the bootheel of his mother, referred to all as the "Old Lady" (Anita Loo). Preparing to celebrate her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu must beg her husband's permission when she is told that her close friend Madame Kang (Amy Hill) is dying in childbirth.

Two things come out of the events of that day. The first is that an American priest, Father Andre (Willem Dafoe) forces his way into the bedroom of the dying woman -- in Chinese society a male in a birthing mother's room was forbidden -- and saves her life, barking orders at the upper class Wu. Returning to her banquet, Madame Wu decides that, after twenty four years of marriage, it is time to turn the duties of the bedchamber over to a concubine. That decision, and the selection of the additional wife, had always been the man's to make. Madame Wu makes a present to her husband and takes the matter out of his hands. Her selection is an orphan child not as old as her youngest son Fengmo (John Cho), whose own marriage has been arranged. This orphan girl, whom she names Chiuming (Yi Ding), will service the husband and the liberated Madame Wu can attend to other matters. Which include overseeing the "foreign education" that Fengmo's new in-laws insist he have prior to the wedding. Thus reenter Father Andre.

This is barely half of it folks. We haven't even touched on the deviant sexual demands, all night drinking and prostitute binges, let alone what happens when you leave a priest and a frustrated woman alone in a hay barn in the rain. Well, maybe something happens and maybe it doesn't. By that point, and we've left out the Commies and aren't even close to the War, you've been drowned by density of plot. Add to this the problem of moving a Chinese language script into the English language used in the film and other lesser problems emerge, most of which you won't hear unless you've ever been a sound man. The dialog, on the other hand, is a bit stilted, and this we can overlook based on that clash of cultures thing.

The performances give you little to empathize with, and there's no way to make an excuse for this. Perhaps that is why you don't get time to settle in and learn about the characters. Constant motion distracts you from the difficulties of pulling off a cross cultural film. And it leaves you no time at all to contemplate the title of the movie and what it may mean. Excepting the birthing scene early on, the women aren't necessarily kept separate from the men -- unless non-married male children aren't considered "men". If so, it is nothing the film makes clear.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Pavilion of Women, he would have paid . . .


Even for fans of the arthouse, rent.

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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.