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Pavilion of Women starring Willem Dafoe, Luo Yan and John Cho: A Cheesy but Lovely Romantic Drama

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Pavilion of Women Story

Madame Wu (Yan Luo) is from a wealthy, important family in pre-World War II China. Although she has a somewhat modern mind, she’s embraced her traditional roles, and is in the process of finding her husband a second wife “because she wants to retire”. Despite the objections and disgust her modern-thinking son Fengmo (John Cho), she settles on a nice, naïve girl who seems a lot more age-appropriate for Fengmo.

Enter Father Andre (Willem Dafoe) who works at the orphanage, is great with kids and is a modern, knowledgeable man. He first impresses (and shocks) Wu and her friends, when he saves the life of Wu’s friend during childbirth. Then Wu hires Andre (who insists on his payments be whatever the kids at the orphanage need) to tutor his son. She later joins his lessons herself, and becomes further impressed with his way of thinking.

As they get to know each other, a strong mutual attraction grows.

Add her son’s feelings for his father’s bride and the war, and things get way too complicated and dangerous for these three characters.

Based on the novel of Pearl S. Buck, adapted to screen by Yan Luo and Paul Collins. Directed by Ho Yim in 2001.  

On Society, Traditions and Relationships

This blog features a series of post on movies where I think cheating is OK (something I don’t support in real life, but the movies in question feature some extraordinary stories and circumstances), and this movie does belong there as I totally approve (and understand) Wu’s falling for Andre (I mean it is a wonderful human being played by the ever lovely Willem Dafoe).

But as outrageous as the idea of a man getting a second wife might seem to a feminist (as in I believe both sexes are equal and one sex having more power/authority/privileges pisses me off to no end), but I think it is a great way to stop having sex with your obnoxious husband. In a time where you don’t get to choose or do much as a woman, and when/if you are not exactly happy with the man you are married to, this seems more like a solution that a problem.

Although, unlike Wu, I’d so find a girl I didn’t like to marry my husband. I mean the “other” wife was so sweet and innocent.  Poor girl. Getting a woman to marry that man would be a sweet revenge.

Of course the core values of the society are questionable. Like not letting a man near a pregnant woman would almost kill both the woman and her baby, Wu’s not initially approving her son’s feelings for his father’s new bride (as if that was the more unnatural thing), saving face being more important than anything, letting the poor kids suffer because they are not yours….The list goes on.

The Movie: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Wu is a wonderfully flawed character that gets on your nerves as much as gets you to root for her. And just like Wu, while being pretty flawed, it has its charming points.

The Good:

  • Willem Dafoe
  • All concepts covered – love, individuality, tradition vs. free will, religion, cultural differences vs. universality of feelings, friendship, education- the irony on how the poor kids got to have a better education…
  • John Cho, though his character could have been more screen time with his romance

The Bad:

  • The exaggerated acting
  • The horribly overdone and overly loud music

The Ugly:

  • The husband (yikes!)
  • The mother-in-law (yikes!)

“The Bad” turned off a lot of movie fans. Some watched it in the “so bad it is good category”. I would have enjoyed the movie more with more natural acting and Chinese (maybe even without subtitles!). And then there’s the music department that thought they were shooting an opera. The opera fits where Dafoe’s character plays it- the rest of the time it gives the movie a soapy feeling.

But I loved Dafoe’s lines, the conversations between him and Wu, the personality of the son, and how well hypocrisy is shown…

Worth Watching?

So despite the things I could barely stand, I still like this movie. For one thing, I’ll give anything with Willem Dafoe a go, a habit I gained after watching The English Patient. People who consider Dafoe a bad actor do baffle me. I mean sure, each to his own, but Dafoe? Bad? Really?

I recommend the movie if:

-You want to check out Dafoe in a romantic role.

– You like seeing where characters grow, learning to overcome double standards and hypocrisy.

– You enjoy absolute contrasts between characters and cultures.


Sometimes you like cheesy despite yourself. For some people it’s Titanic. For some it is Notting hill. I choose to use my it’s cheesy but I like it anyway” card for Pavilion of Women (didn’t care for neither Titanic or Notting Hill.)

It could and should have been much better, but it is still fun it is own, weird, overdone way. And no, I probably wouldn’t have watched it till the end, had it not been for Dafoe…



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