A glass ceiling is smashed on September 8, 1993 with the premiere of The Joy Luck Club, the first major modern Hollywood movie featuring an all Asian American and predominantly female cast. The adaptation of Amy Tan’s 1989 novel received highly favorable reviews and grossed $33 million, making it a landmark moment for Asian Americans in the film industry.
Tan’s novel focuses on four women, all of whom faced hardships in pre-revolutionary China before emigrating to America and raising children in San Francisco, who formed the titular club to play mahjong and swap stories. Their stories are interwoven with those of their children, who have grown up in the United States and have complex relationships with their identities, as well as with their mothers. The screenplay, co-written by Tan and praised by Roger Ebert as “remarkable for its complexity and force,” spans much of the 20th century and depicted the Asian American experience in a way that no major-studio American production ever had.
Before The Joy Luck Club, female Asian characters in American movies had almost always been racist stereotypes, and if Asian characters’ roles were substantial enough, they were often given to white actors. Ming-Na Wen, who starred in the film as June and went on to star in Mulan and other major productions, called it her “green card to Hollywood.” Although it has received some criticism for playing into stereotypes about China and for its portrayal of Asian American men, The Joy Luck Club is still viewed as a turning point for Asian Americans in entertainment. Despite the buzz around the film and the boost that it gave to its cast, it took 25 years for another major motion picture to feature a predominantly female, Asian American ensemble cast: 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians.