The project appears to have been conceived as a vehicle to introduce American audiences to leading lady Luo Yan, who both produced the project and co-wrote the screenplay (with Paul R. Collins). Luo stars as Wu Ailian, the wife of Mr. Wu (Shek Sau), the richest man in Jiang Su province, circa 1938. It is nearly the last gasp of the Chinese empire: World War II has started, the Japanese are sure to invade, and Mao's communist revolution is around another corner.
The Wus live in an uneasy time warp: Despite the isolation and protection created by their wealth, both the modern world and the influence of the West are closing in on them. It becomes clear quite quickly that Madame Wu's marriage is not precisely a love match: It is a traditional arranged marriage, with the wife gaining position and security in return for bearing heirs, running the household, flattering and giving face to the Master, and providing sex -- mostly, not to be delicate about it, in the form of one-way oral satisfaction.
Despite the pressure from Mr. Wu's mother (Anita Loo), the matriarch who really calls the shots, Madame Wu has had about enough -- certainly enough of Mr. Wu's "Blow me, then get lost; I need my sleep!" attitude. Still, Mr. Wu is a bit of a prude: He wouldn't think of cheating on her -- much to her dismay, actually. While for most women in her position it is humiliating for the husband to bring a concubine into the household, Madame Wu is so eager to be relieved of her sexual duties that she arranges for a concubine as a surprise gift for her husband. (It says something about whom this gift is really for that she announces it on her birthday.)
In the middle of all this, Madame Wu also meets Andre (Willem Dafoe, whose casting presumably had a lot to do with the project getting made), an American missionary/doctor who has fallen in love with the Chinese people and is (we can tell pretty quickly) about to fall in love with a specific Chinese woman.
The story is complicated by the utter failure of the new concubine (Yi Ding) to please the Master and her inevitable attraction to the Master's eldest son (John Cho). All these romantic entanglements, which would have been ruthlessly suppressed in an earlier generation, are so devastating that, by the time the bombs begin to fall, the destruction of the Wu clan and the antiquated culture it represents is well under way.
While any number of Hong Kong directors have come to work for Hollywood studios in recent years -- John Woo (Face/Off), Tsui Hark (Double Team), Ringo Lam (Maximum Risk), Peter Chan (Love Letter), and Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky) -- they were commercial directors making genre films. Hong Kong's vital, but much smaller, art-house cinema -- including such filmmakers as Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan, Shu Kei, Mabel Cheung, and, most visibly, Wong Kar-Wai -- has, until now, found not even a temporary home in Hollywood.
Yim Ho is the first such director to make this transition, and the flaws in the result may well come from the uncomfortable arranged marriage of relatively big-budget Hollywood commerce and excruciatingly low-budget Hong Kong art. (It also may come from the problems of a first-time writer/producer trying to fashion a showcase vehicle for herself in English.)
Regardless of the provenance of the difficulties, Pavilion of Women has an awkwardness that defeats whatever emotional involvement it tries to achieve. Yim has never hesitated to plunge into melodrama: Both his most florid work, like the luscious and engaging Red Dust (1990), and his more austere, such as The Day the Sun Turned Cold (1995), are wrenching experiences. Stylistically, Pavilion of Women falls somewhere in between, but it achieves much less of an effect. On the plus side, there is some lovely cinematography from Poon Hang-Sang (Crime Story), and Conrad Pope's score is appropriately lush and romantic. But the dialogue is often clunky, even embarrassing ("Your name will be ... Love!" Madame Wu tells a child in the final scene) and the romantic situations -- running from a storm, Madame Wu twists her ankle and Andre has to carry her into the conveniently deserted barn -- are not particularly fresh.
The ending even goes so far as to invoke, perhaps unconsciously, that classic Asian-American romantic weepie Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), with William Holden in the Dafoe part and Jennifer Jones (gulp!) as the Eurasian heroine. I must confess that the corresponding scene from the earlier film marked the first time I ever cried at a movie, but, hey, I was about 6 years old at the time, and it was the '50s. Modern (and more grown-up) audiences are likelier to giggle.
One other note: Pavilion of Women is a co-production between Universal and Beijing Film Studios, apparently the first time a mainland company has collaborated with a major Hollywood studio. One wonders how the execs over in Universal City reacted when they saw the film's climax, in which two of the major characters are revealed to have found happiness and fulfillment as smiling members of the Chinese Communist Party. Art sometimes makes stranger bedfellows than politics.