The English-language production takes place on the eve of World War II in a China that still clings to the vestiges of the past, namely the practice of concubinage. For the wealthy Wu family, and particularly for Madame Wu (Luo Yan), the past is an anchor, a way of ignoring the ominous signs of communists lurking in the hills and Japanese soldiers preparing for invasion. It is also a prison, for Madame Wu is a virtual slave to her husband, despite the trappings of wealth. As a means to help liberate herself, Madame Wu gives her husband an orphaned peasant girl as his second wife, hoping that refocusing his attentions on another will, in some small way, give her a modicum of freedom from his whims. But reality intrudes in the form of Father Andre (Willem Dafoe), the American priest in charge of the local orphanage, a man of reason and compassion who rattles the Wu family's world with his unthinkable determination to put human beings ahead of custom.
The relationship between Andre and Madame Wu that drives the film is a compelling one, sweepingly romantic on the surface but powerfully symbolic below. It is also the filter through which the film addresses many of the issues of the day, almost all of which are still pertinent: the role of communism, the Chinese struggle with change, antagonism towards things Western and the oppression of women under the guise of tradition. That the film never becomes preachy is its great strength. That it was filmed in English, though commercially sensible, is something of a dramatic drawback, creating problems for many of the Chinese actors who appear to struggle with the dialogue.
Still, despite these nagging weaknesses, the film soars when it resorts to purely visual storytelling. Director Yim Ho ("Buddha's Lock") is among Hong Kong's most respected directors of dramatic material, a multiple award-winner who knows how to mount a spectacle and pull the heartstrings. Here, he does it with confidence and panache, staging several scenes--a rescue from a burning orphanage and a chilling Japanese invasion--that will leave few dry eyes in the house. It's an achievement that owes much as well to Yim's esteemed collaborators: cinematographer Poon Hang Sang (Jackie Chan's "Who Am I?"), designer James Lung Wah Sang (John Woo's "Bullet in the Head") and composer Conrad Pope, a former John Williams arranger/orchestrator whose swooning, epic score almost single-handedly compensates for the script's occasional glitches.
There is no question, however, that Buck would have been proud of "Pavilion of Women," a movie that not only faithfully honors her book and pays tribute to the beloved China of her childhood, but which brings to the fore a major cross-cultural triple-threat in the very talented Luo Yan. Starring Willem Dafoe, Luo Yan, Shek Sau, John Cho, Yi Ding, Koh Chieng Mun and Anita Loo. Directed by Yim Ho. Written by Luo Yan & Paul R. Collins. Produced by Luo Yan. A Universal Focus release. Period Drama. Rated R for sexuality and war images. Running time: 119 min