At one point in Pavilion of Women, the film’s star Madame Wu says, “I feel like a frog living in a well only seeing a small portion of the sky.” The figurative sky opens a little too much in this movie, which is great for Wu but a bit vexing for the audience. It is hard to get a handle on the film’s multiple layers of plot and subplot.
Pavilion of Women (Universal Focus) directed by Yim Ho, revolves around Madame Wu, played by acclaimed Chinese actress Luo Yan. The Wu family is high on the social scale, much like the Kennedy family. And like the Kennedys, the family has a lot going on behind closed doors.
Wu decides to give her husband a concubine. This move is bold and something most Chinese women would refuse to do. But after 24 years of marriage, the 40-year-old Madame Wu is tired of “taking care” of her husband. She views the arrival of “the second wife,” played by Yi Ding (Shower), as a way to gain peace and freedom in her life. She literally lets her hair down and reads every night, grateful she no longer has to sleep with her husband.
But her peace is everyone else’s torment. The concubine, Chiuming, is terrified of Mr. Wu (Shek Sau), who is rough and demanding and unsatisfied by the young, timid Chiuming. The Wu family’s son, Fengmo (John Cho), is upset by his family’s loose morals in a time when concubines are becoming outlawed. But the condemning of adultery is not all that is changing. There are other things like electricity and World War II that are about to change his family’s fortunes forever.
First, there’s the arrival of Brother Andre (Willem Dafoe). Brother Andre, a sensitive, cultured American priest runs an orphanage. He’s charming, but in a mysterious, alluring way. The inevitable love affair between Madame Wu and Brother Andre does not take long to develop, especially after Madame Wu starts observing English lessons Brother Andrew gives to Fengmo and Chiuming.
Brother Andrew and Madame Wu’s affair becomes real through a mixture of tragedies and tiny triumphs. It is almost spiritual. Then there is the emotion: the love, the betrayal, the joy and the heartbreak. It can be a bit overdone at times, but the war scenes are brutally and wonderfully real.
The scenes in the movie, bustling with Chinese people, are active and unique. Brother Andre’s orphans, begging on the streets and servants that bustle around the Wu compound make the film dynamic.
Pavilion of Women could easily be deemed a foreign film but Willem Dafoe’s appearance places it in a different category. The language is rough, and many of the Chinese actors seem to stumble through their lines.
Dafoe’s performance is one of the strongest aspects of the movie. His interaction with Yan is what the audience wants to see. It is almost disappointing when Dafoe and Yan consummate their love, but it is bound to happen.
There is nothing to stop them from continuing their affair, and there is nothing to stop Wu’s son, Fengmo from pursuing his father’s neglected concubine.
In a beautiful scene at an opera, Brother Andre impresses Madame Wu by predicting the outcome, even though he does not understand the character’s lyrics. “All love stories end the same, don’t they?” he asks as the music crescendos. And as far as Pavilion of Women,/I> is concerned, his theory is correct.
Pavilion of Women is in theatres Friday.