Pavilion of Women (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

 I can't remember seeing any movie with worse reviews. 4% positive reviews, according to Rotten Tomatoes, and a perfect 0% from the top reviewers.

And that from a movie with impeccable aesthetics and gorgeous cinematography.

So why is it so bad? Well, it's probably not as bad as the reviews indicate, but I can give you some small insights into why the reviews are so bad. As in any subject-object relationship, we can find some of the cause in the object, some in the subject.

Let's be honest upfront. It isn't a good movie. It's a clichéd old-fashioned story of a love encounter between East and West, like watching The King and I without the music. Frankly, I don't think The King and I is all that good even with the music, so I found the story trite and corny, not to mention unoriginal. And there were typical soap opera plot twists (sorry, no evil twins!), some moments of pure kitsch, and a misguided attempt to create a backdrop of sweeping historical events. Think of a Richard Chamberlain mini-series with Willem Dafoe filling in for Richard Chamberlain.



That explains plenty about why people despised the film. The rest can be attributed to the old-fashioned, politically incorrect view of Chinese society. Like the films of an earlier age, the film paints the Chinese characters with very broad brush strokes, lets them speak halting pidgin English, and never allows them to break free from the societal conventionalism that binds their behavior patterns within a narrow band. I'm not sure that this portrait is inaccurate, by the way, but it is simply not sophisticated and tolerant enough for our modern ears. The story was written by Pearl S Buck (The Good Earth), who was an expert on Chinese speech and culture, and the screenplay was adapted from Buck's novel by Luo Yan, a Chinese woman who also produced the film and starred in it. If a foreigner had written this screenplay, it would have been panned as condescending racism. Even though it was penned by a Chinese woman, we are still shocked by the stereotypes.

Is it accurate? I don't know. I think the screenwriter/producer/star would have thrown out portrayals that rang false to her, but I just don't know. I have to say that I found it fascinating. Since I don't know much about traditional Chinese society, I was quite amazed by the attitudes of the characters and their ways of addressing each other. In the soap opera plot, for example, one guy falls in love with his father's second wife. Although she is 18 years old and soon to become his lover, the guy calls her "second mother" when he addresses her. "Will you be joining us, second mother?". I suspect he abandoned this when he became her lover. "I must urgently request a most honorable and traditional blow job, second mother"

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • no meaningful features

I think that probably tells you why the film was universally panned, despite superior production values and aesthetics. Most people found the plot to be pure soap opera, and those not put off by the plot were probably uncomfortable with what seem to be condescending racial stereotypes.

Although I knew that plot was cornier than Kansas in August, I did find the film to be an interesting insight into the rituals and conventions of a rigorously formal society, and I found the photography to be out of this world, so I thought it was not such a bad watch. If they cut back on the long running time, and eliminated some of the syrupy sweet scenes, I might actually have liked it.

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.6 
  • With their dollars ... it failed miserably. Opened on nine screens in test cities, it was excoriated by the critics, and was never placed in wide release. The total box office was $35,000
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C-. One of those sweeping multi-generation foreign family epics, which would have fared better as a TV mini-series. It's watchable if you like that kind of movie, but avoid it if you don't, because it carries all the baggage implied by that genre.

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