Pavilion of Women
Intelligent and well read, Madam Wu has just turned forty. At her birthday celebration, she scandalizes the gathering by announcing that she will arrange for a much younger woman to be her husband’s concubine. Why would so perfect a woman seek such a humiliation in her own house? Quite frankly, she’s not too crazy about her husband or his penchant for selfish sexual practices. With a new wife for her husband, Madam Wu is able to withdraw from her sexual servitude and further expand her intellectual horizons. ****** It is China, 1938. The wealthy Wu family lives a luxurious and protected lifestyle within a sprawling compound. Yet beyond the walls of the Wu compound, the world is in turmoil. The Second World War rages and the Japanese invasion draws ever nearer, while the civil war between China’s nationalists and communists reaches even into the Wu family itself.****** In this epic romantic tragedy, based on a novel by Pearl S. Buck (“The Good Earth,” “Dragon Seed”) Willem Dafoe plays Father Andre, a missionary doctor who inspires a spiritual – and sexual – awakening in Madame Wu.
Writer, producer, star Luo Yan unsuccessfully attempts to revive the romantic drama of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Her stage is set in tried-and-true territory, with a pugnacious American in the midst of traditional Asian culture. But the melodramatic material seems forced, with one laughable coincidence after another leading up to the inevitable coupling of priest and married woman.****** While Ms. Yan overcomes the oft-embarrassing dialogue and situations, her fellow cast members don’t fare as well. Everyone from one-line players to the male lead deliver their lines with all the accomplishment of a junior high drama student. ****** Mr. Dafoe fails to convince us of his character’s religious fervor. We never understand his commitment or believe that he understands the spiritual significance of his calling. He wants to help others, yes, but it often appears that he is motivated out of a humanistic belief rather than a spiritual one. This missing religious passion is detrimental to the plot, for his Andre is a man of God and this broken commandment would certainly torment him. This anguish we never feel. ****** It’s not just me who felt the insincerity of the storytellers. Several times, the conversations on screen brought unintentional snickers from many in the screening audience. The structure is clumsy and the dialogue pretentious when I assume the authors were trying to be poetic.****** I did appreciate the look of the film. The set design, lighting, the colors, were each impressive, as was the stunning photography. I also congratulate the filmmakers for their restraint of objectionable language, and the careful use of suggestion rather than exploitation when it came to sexual situations and violence. While the selfish sexual acts of one character are made clear, they are not graphically demonstrated. Indeed, sex has been incorporated, not to be exploitive, but to serve as character development. ****** But the promise of an epic Eastern love affair failed to move this viewer. For other films about Americans in China, try “The Left Hand of God,” “China Cry,” “The Good Earth,” “The Keys of the Kingdom,” “The Sand Pebbles,” and my favorite, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” Ingrid Bergman stars in this true story of a missionary who leads a group of children on a perilous journey in pre-WW2 China. It contains the most moving conversion I’ve seen in the movies, as we witness change in a man’s life due to this courageous woman’s example. It reminds viewers that our lifestyle does affect others.