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'Joy Luck' Author Remembers Mama

TELLURIDE, Colo. So here she was, a best-selling author who hardly ever goes to the movies, in the middle of a film festival and promoting a movie. Amy Tan confessed she was having a good time. The author of The Joy Luck Club, one of the most popular novels of recent years, was here for the premiere of the film version of her story.

"I don't think I've averaged seeing one movie a year," she said, almost blushing. "And then it would be a movie on an airplane. I've gotten better since I got involved in this movie, though. I go to the movies quite a lot now, by my standards. But I would still rather spend my time reading and writing."

Her book was written, she said, in an attempt to understand her mother, who came to the United States from China. "All of my life, there were things I didn't understand about my relationship with my mother. We had grown apart. I thought I'd lost it. I made an effort to write stories, imagining to myself what she was really trying to say. For example, my mother always said her mother was the first wife of a rich man. But my grandmother killed herself. I couldn't understand why she would have done that, and so in writing the novel I made her the fourth wife, to give her a reason. When my mother read the book, she asked, 'How did you know your grandmother was really the fourth wife?' "

"The Joy Luck Club," directed by Wayne Wang and scheduled for nationwide release Friday, tells the fictionalized stories of Tan and her mother, and three other mother-daughter pairs. In each case, the mothers came from great hardship and suffering in pre-revolutionary China, and their Americanized daughters had difficulty in understanding what they had gone through. The movie, which moves effortlessly from present to the past, is deeply moving. And although most of the characters are Chinese, all of the emotions are universal.

Tan was sitting upstairs at the little Excelsior Cafe, across the street from the Nugget Theater, where her film had just played, having brunch with her husband, Lou DeMattei, and her co-screenwriter, Ron Bass.

"When I started talking about the script with Ron and Wayne, Ron told me, 'Well, there isn't a part in here for Julia.' And I asked, 'Julia who?' And he told me, 'Julia Roberts.' And I said, 'Who's she?' That's how much I knew about the movies."

For Bass, whose writing credits include the Julia Roberts film "Sleeping with the Enemy," as well as "Rain Man," the answer was refreshing. Together they were going to write an epic film about four families, and the cost was going to be only about $11 million - less than half the average Hollywood film. That's not a whole lot more than Julia Roberts' salary.

The story of Tan's novel is by now well known: How she was a San Francisco advertising copywriter whose first book began slowly in the stores but then became a long-running best seller. The rights were purchased by Disney, which enforced its well-known budget frugality but otherwise left Wang, Tan and Bass alone as they brought the book's many stories to the screen. Much of the movie was shot in China, showing in deep emotional detail the experiences that helped to shape the four "aunties" of the Joy Luck Club - four women who meet weekly to play Mah Jong, and whose values and memories can hardly be understood by their Americanized children.

In China, Tan said, her novel has been translated in three or four different editions, "but the Chinese are interested in the other side of the stories. They're used to seeing tragedies. What they're interested in is life in America for a Chinese person."

And for her mother, Tan said, the film's Los Angeles premiere was quite an experience: "It was hosted by Annette Bening. My mother wanted to know who she was. I mentioned some movies but she had never heard of them. I said she was married to Warren Beatty. 'Ah!' my mother said. 'Shirley MacLaine's brother! I like her books! That woman, she has a very important sister-in-law."

Her mother said something else, Tan said. "All of my life, my mother would look at me and sigh, 'What did I do to deserve such a daughter?' And she would have a kind of tragic look. After the first screening, she said, 'What did I do to deserve such a daughter?' But this time she said it differently."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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