In 1993, the bestselling Amy Tan novel The Joy Luck Club made cinematic history by becoming one of the most successful North American films to have an all-Asian lead cast. What seemed like a turning point in diversity and inclusion on the big screen turned out to be a shining blip on the radar of studio execs. Despite the success, including high praise from critics and pulling in $32.9 million at the box office (three times the film’s $10 million budget), the impressive cast would go on to roles that often left them as the only non-white cast member on TV shows and in films. Now Tamlyn Tomita, who played Waverly in The Joy Luck Club, is celebrating the film’s impact 25 years later and discussing sequel rumours, the success of Crazy Rich Asians, and what’s in store in Season 2 of her hit medical drama The Good Doctor.
On September 13, Tomita, along with director Wayne Wang, casting director Heidi Levitt, and co-stars Tsai Chin and Kieu Chinh returned to the Elgin Theatre in Toronto for the 25th anniversary screening of The Joy Luck Club at TIFF. The film premiered at the festival back in 1993, but 25 years ago only Wang and author Amy Tan appeared at the screening, with none of the cast members in attendance. “Quite frankly, I don’t think the studios really believed that the film would do so well,” says Tomita, explaining the cast’s absence.
But it did do well. The Joy Luck Club has become one of the few references of the Asian American experience on screen, with only a handful of films featuring Asian actors in leading roles released every few decades, including Flower Drum Song, Enter The Dragon and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.
The weight of knowing The Joy Luck Club would carry the unfair responsibility of representing an entire group of people was felt by the cast and crew during filming, but it was a monumental task the actors and creators were up for, says Tomita.
“It was important to us because it spoke to us. We knew we had a good film,” says Tomita. “But we just didn’t know how well the film would turn out. So, when we all collectively saw it, we just started crying and bawling like little girls. It just really meant something to see everyone relate to it on a universal level. It was just a story about mothers, how they relate to their daughters and how they become people in their daughters’ eyes.”
Tomita, who got her start in acting as Kumiko in Karate Kid II, said that even with the immediate success of The Joy Luck Club, she knew the experience was not one she would have again for a long time, if ever. “It felt like the unicorn movie. We knew we had something special, and it would never happen again–not until 25 years later. That’s a statement in itself, that we had to wait so long to see the next movie. But we knew we had a special thing.”
The 25-year drought ended this summer with the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, another adaptation of a bestseller, this time by author Kevin Kwan. During the film’s extensive promotional tour, it wasn’t uncommon to hear one of the leads from Crazy Rich Asians pay homage to The Joy Luck Club. Tomita says that the success of Crazy Rich Asians, which brought in over $100 million at the box office, is a shared celebration. “It’s a culmination of efforts of Asian American filmmakers throughout the years since The Joy Luck Club, but it’s also a testament to the long history we have in cinema and television. There were films that had Asian American characters,” says Tomita. “But not in the lead and that’s what really marks it as special.”
Tomita says that she hopes the recent success of Asian American actors in leading roles in films like Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, which stars John Cho, and To All The Boys I Loved Before, starring Lana Condor, will open the gateway to not only tell Asian American stories, but also stories simply featuring actors of Asian American descent. “It doesn’t always have to be about being Asian and the Asian American identity or immigrants. It’s just about people being normal folks who fall in love, who have families and carry through all kinds of situations just like everyone in America and Canada does.”
The 2018 box office success of films like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians and Oceans 8 proves that people want to see films with diversity and are willing to pay for it. As Tomita notes, money is what drives film studios, which means now is the perfect time to start discussions around a sequel to The Joy Luck Club.
According to Tomita, discussions of a sequel have already begun between Wang and screenwriter Ron Bass, with author Amy Tan giving her blessing for her beloved characters to appear once more on the big screen. Bringing the story forward a few decades means revisiting the four sets of mothers and daughters, who are now grandmothers and mothers with their own daughters. Tomita says the new film would tackle the advent of technology and how social media and cell phones affect the generational relationship between children and their grandparents.
As for where her character is 25 years later, Tomita says that she and her Joy Luck Club castmates made their predictions when shooting the original film. “Waverly probably did a 180-degree turn, being the materialistic, go get ‘em executive, and only dated Asian guys ever since she divorced her Chinese husband. She became a full-fledged Chinese American activist who only speaks Chinese, only eats Chinese food.” As for the rest of the daughters, Tomita says she and her castmates laid out the future for all four women. June would become a success in her field, Rose would rise the top of the wine industry thanks to the connections from her husband, and Lena would become a fierce executive after taking over her husband’s company.
Thankfully, we may soon find out whether the 25-year-old predictions come true. But in the meantime, Tomita is returning to her role on the breakout drama The Good Doctor where she plays hospital administrator Allegra Aoki.
When Season 1 wrapped last spring, hospital president Dr. Aaron Glassman, played by Richard Schiff, had revealed his cancer diagnosis. “You’ll see how he deals with that diagnosis in being a human and also being the president of a hospital,” says Tomita. As for series lead Freddie Highmore, who plays Dr. Shaun Murphy, a brilliant young surgeon who is on the Autism spectrum, Tomita says viewers will be excited to see him fall in love. “Dr. Shawn Murphy discovers what love is and how it matters in his life and how he chooses to accept the fact that there are gains and losses in dealing with the wonderful issue of love.”
As for Tomita’s Allegra, expect to see the character finding her new place among the heads of the hospital. “You’ll see how she balances the running of the ship, especially with what’s going on, on top. We’ll see some really interesting and complex things happen.”
Season 2 of The Good Doctor premieres on Monday, September 24 at 10 p.m. ET on CTV.