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Pavilion of Women

They should film all clichéd love stories in China — at least that way they'd look good enough to help take your mind off the fact that they're predictable, poorly written, and about as deep as a pond in an ornamental garden. But even exotic scenery only goes so far, and Pavilion of Women is a few sweeping vistas short of an adequate distraction. Based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, the 1938-set drama is as sudsy as your average soap opera or '80s miniseries. On her 40th birthday, Madame Wu (Luo Yan, who also co-wrote and produced the film) decides she's had enough of her nasty, lecherous husband's ways (you can't blame her — Shek Sau plays him as a petty, whiny mama's boy with no redeeming qualities). So she gets him a concubine, the lovely, demure Chiuming (Ding Yi), and heaves a big sigh of relief, turning her attention to the classes an American priest is giving her youngest son, Fengmo (John Cho). Faster than you can say "Richard Chamberlain," Madame Wu and the saintly Father Andre (Willem Dafoe, who really is better than this) are making eyes at each other and trading profound insights on religion, culture, and relationships. Meanwhile, the angry, rebellious Fengmo can't help falling for his beautiful "second mother," Chiuming, which leads to no end of problems. Oh, and the Japanese could start attacking at any second, too. Toss in an orphanage fire, a "let's duck in this barn to get out of the rain" love scene, and a bittersweet ending anyone could see coming a mile away, and you've got yourself a whole bucket o' melodrama. Not that there's anything wrong with melodrama; in the right circumstances (The Thorn Birds, Shogun, etc.), it can be great fun. But even melodrama suffers from a choppy, shrill script and stereotypical characters (some of the supporting players are more cartoonish than the cast of Mulan). A few scenes in The Pavilion of Women manage to rise above the rest of the movie — the sequence in which Fengmo and Madame Wu translate a Chinese opera for their respective objects of affection is quite sweet — and praise is due to Ding Yi for her subdued, subtle performance as Chiuming. But on the whole, you'd be better off catching a couple of hours of "Days of Our Lives." While the image is a little grainy in spots on Universal's DVD, that seems to be a cinematography issue rather than the fault of the generally crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), which captures the period detail nicely. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks are strong, while other audio options include French 2.0 and English subtitles. Only a few extras: bios/filmographies for Dafoe and Luo Yan, production notes, recommendations for other Universal flicks on DVD, and a link for DVD-ROM goodies. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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