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What is a woman worth?

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By Kelly LeVan

Here’s one of those rare cases where you can love a book – and love the movie based on it as well. They’re two unique works of art, the novel and the film “The Joy Luck Club,” while cut from the same silky fabric.In both, Amy Tan, either as a novelist or a screenwriter, tells the intersecting stories of eight women, four Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters. The stories pivot around that of Jing-Mei “June” Woo (played by Ming-Na in the film), whose mother Suyuan (Kieu Chinh) recently died.Suyuan was a member of the Joy Luck Club, formed by the older generation of women, and now the club has purchased a plane ticket for June to fly to China and meet her twin half-sisters, whom her mother abandoned during wartime, hoping a better life would find them.Suyuan died without ever knowing her twins were still alive – that a stranger had found them on the side of a road laden with treasures refugees could no longer carry, and that the twins had been searching for their mother their whole lives.Each female character in “The Joy Luck Club” has a tale just as heartbreaking. Clearly, China, especially during Japan’s occupation of the country, was no place for young girls.One, as a toddler, became betrothed to a boy who was still an infant – because a matchmaker linked the children’s birthdates to their future prosperity. Needless to say, the children, who marry in their early teens, do not form the perfect couple.Another of the women married for love, but her husband did not. He has only lust and cruelty for his young bride, and he keeps neither solely for her.A third’s mother was banished by her family when she became a fourth wife, or third concubine, to a wealthy man. The daughter of such a shameful woman had a very low place in the strict social hierarchy.The stories of the Chinese-American women do not hold the same historical gravity, but nonetheless, each one has endured her share of humiliation, jealousy and, most of all, trying to meet their mothers’ high expectations. “What is a woman worth?” the film asks repeatedly. The answer, ultimately, depends on how she values herself.In the book, each story reads as its own chapter, but film doesn’t have that luxury. So for the screen, Tan created a gathering for all the characters to attend: a farewell party for June before she embarks for China. The camera moves from person to person, letting the audience know whose story it will hear next.Tan rewrote certain parts of the individual stories as well, but she does so with purpose and ingenuity, sacrificing none of the intimacy for which her book is so renowned.Director Wayne Wang does a wonderful job, as do the set and costume designers. Because the script takes the characters to many different locations in China and San Francisco, it demands many sets, each of which fits perfectly.The stark gray sets and matching dull gray costumes at Lena St. Clair’s (Lauren Tom) home stand out, emphasizing with minimalist formality the way Lena feels about her marriage.The puffy, starfish-like costumes wrapping Suyuan’s twin babies make them look even more innocent and helpless, wriggling beside a tree as their mother stumbles away in tears.You can tell, when watching “The Joy Luck Club,” that the people behind the scenes really understood the book.