“Pavilion of Women” is quite obviously a labor of love for its star, award-winning Chinese actress Luo Yan. Not only did she produce this adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s 1946 novel of the same name, she also took it upon herself to co-write the screenplay. With those facts, and the film’s lush look and grand historical backdrop, in mind, “Pavilion of Women” sure seems like an “important” film. But the only importance anyone is likely to associate with this overblown melodrama is self-importance.
The key problem with “Pavilion” lies not in incompetence but in misdirected passion. Luo spent years to get this project made, and her emotional investment in the material comes through in her sympathetic performance as the wealthy and intelligent Madam Wu. But her intimacy with the material has apparently blinded her to the fact that this sudsy tale is undeserving of the would-be epic treatment she, co-scripter Paul R. Collins, and director Yim Ho have given it. The setting of 1938 China and the onset of WWII are a mere gloss to what is a clumsily executed Harlequin-level soaper. When Madam Wu decides to wipe herself clean of her husband (Shek Sau) on her 40th birthday by giving him a young concubine she names Chiuming (Yi Ding), it is but one decision that brings scandal upon their reputable household. That proves to be only the beginning, for the hiring of Andre (Willem Dafoe), an American priest who runs a local orphanage, as her youngest son Fengmo’s (John Cho) tutor ends up awakening various passions of heart and mind in Madam Wu.
Such tales of forbidden love-make that love in general-can only work when there are some detectable sparks between the paramours, and Luo and Dafoe only manage a friendly rapport at best, never mind the fact the miscast Dafoe (can anyone really buy him as some paragon of romantic idealism?) makes the whole “amorous priest” notion that much creepier. But it’s difficult to imagine any pair of actors surviving the torrent of clichés that flood the parallel love stories (the other being the attraction between Fengmo and Chiuming). When a couple consummates their relationship in a hayloft as the already-overwrought score (by Conrad Pope) hits a bombastic crescendo, it’s difficult to stifle a laugh.
Adding to the artificiality of “Pavilion of Women” is the fact that it was filmed in English. Obviously a move to ensure funding and help global marketing, in this instance art should have been chosen over commerce. While Luo speaks English with ease, as do the various Asian-Americans in the cast, others have audible trouble-that is, if they’re not victim to some obvious dubbing. But I guess that only suits “Pavilion of Women,” which is characterized by a more problematic disconnect: between the big, emotional epic it believes itself to be and the antiquated slice of hokum it truly is.