Within moments of the opening credits of the weepy, self-important, World War II-era Chinese soap opera "Pavilion of Women" a question arises that plagues the whole movie: Why is this in English?
Everything about this film screams "import" except the dialogue, which screams "translated too literally." A good half of the language coming out of people's mouths sounds so absurdly formalized that any emotion it might have contained is lost under the burden of unnecessary syllables. This is especially odd since the movie was adapted from a Pearl S. Buck novel and written in English to begin with.
The problem (with the dialogue that is, for there are many problems) may also be that the delivery is always either bloodless or histrionic. This could be another byproduct of the picture being a hybrid of Chinese culture and English language. It is Hong Kong director Yim Ho's first project not shot in his native tongue and most of the actors (all Chinese except a missionary played by Willem Dafoe) seem to have learned their lines phonetically and have no idea what they're saying.
But even if Yim didn't speak a word of English, he should still have been able to recognize that "Pavilion of Women" is absolutely drowning in clichés and cheap melodrama, which is a shame because at its heart are the makings of a truly powerful story.
The film is about a miserable upper-caste Chinese wife called Madam Wu (co-writer and producer Lou Yan), who gives her husband a naive, orphaned peasant girl (Yi Ding) as a concubine for his 50th birthday, then tells him she will never again come to his bed and dares to begin pursuing her own life.
It's easy to understand why she would want to do this, since her husband (Shek Sau) is a selfish, cruel, overacted ogre, always full of bellicose threats and sexual demands (he's shown physically forcing Madam Wu to go down on him) -- although one has to wonder why she's OK with inflicting the same unpleasantness on an innocent young stranger.
Of course, the Wus' headstrong oldest son (John Cho) immediately falls in love with the concubine at first sight, creating a maudlin but grossly underdeveloped subplot that complicates his impending arranged marriage, about which he's constantly pouting. But the film's focus falls mainly on the forbidden desire that slowly builds between Madam Wu and Andre (Dafoe), an American priest who runs the local orphanage.
The sexual tension between these two is utterly lifeless until the painfully seriocomic scene that finds them walking through the country side in the rain when Madam Wu twists her ankle, Andre carries her into a barn and their passions explode as they make love on a haystack. At this point, as the soundtrack swells with the cheesy calenture of 10 orchestras from 10 Depression-era romantic tearjerkers, "Pavilion of Women" becomes such a paperback romance that it's hard to not wonder why Yim cast Willem Dafoe as the priest instead of Fabio.
Set in 1938 against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion preceding WWII, the film has a strong sense of place and time. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous, and in its last 10 minutes "Pavilion" manages to become quite a gripping wartime tragedy. But otherwise the film is a technical mess in addition to being sentimentally soulless.
Butcher-shop editing leaves several confrontational or pivotal scenes with no follow-through whatsoever, as when the concubine attempts suicide then disappears from the storyline for several days. On the rare occasion that there is sincere and philosophical dialogue, it is disembodied and used as a voice-over. In fact, the film almost completely fails to show how Madam Wu and Andre become friends. They're in the same room a lot, but their most engrossing conversation is heard and not seen.
I also have a long list of petty criticisms, like the fact that when Madam Wu and Andre's orphans throw him a surprise birthday party he says, "This is the first time I've celebrated my birthday since I was a child." If that's so, how did anyone in this foreign land know it was his birthday? (Sorry, just had to get that one off my chest.)
But it's the fact that the film's emotions are either gushing at one extreme or bone dry at the other -- sometimes in the same scene -- that makes this movie so insincere as to be almost laughable, right down to the insipidly cheery epilogue of the orphanage children at play in a beautiful green field three years after it's all over.
Run time: 116 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th November 2001
Distributed by: Universal Focus
Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 6%
Fresh: 2 Rotten: 29
IMDB: 5.9 / 10
Director: Yim Ho
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