On her 40th birthday Madam Wu (Luo Yan) the head of one of the largest households in town announces she has acquired a second wife for her husband. Get this: Madame Wu feels that she is too old and Lord Wu (Shek Sau) deserves a wife more capable of satisfying his physical needs. Chiuming (Yi Ding) a young peasant girl is quickly married to the lord freeing Madame Wu from the wifely duties of her loveless marriage. She turns her attention to Andre (Willem Dafoe) her son's tutor and an American priest and doctor who runs the local orphanage. Of course Andre's overwhelming benevolence enamors Madame Wu and Western ideals and their friendship quickly escalate to a forbidden love affair. The lovers are tragically torn apart by the invasion of Japanese troops and Andre is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the helpless community.
Although Pavilion is touted as a period Chinese film the actors speak colloquial English and it is hard to dismiss the stilted dialogue that sounds like it has been dubbed from a bad kung-fu movie. This aside leads Luo Yan and Willem Dafoe give solid performances and but cannot salvage the banality of the script. Yan an accomplished actress who also co-wrote and produced the film graces the screen with the sincerity of a woman who has quietly endured pain her whole life and has finally been freed. Dafoe tackles the role of the Great White Hope like a true professional but at times it looks as if he's wondering what the heck he's gotten himself into as in scene after scene he plays with dirty-faced orphans with a goofy grin on his face. The cast is rounded out by a host of one-dimensional characters like Lord Wu the fellatio-starved stereotypical patriarch; Chiuming the reluctant concubine and Fengmo (John Cho) the rebellious son who falls in love with Chiuming and runs off to join the Communist Army. Comic relief is attempted by Amy Hill and Koh Chieng Mun.
Based on a 1946 Pearl Buck novel Pavilion lacks the sophistication of Chinese films like Farewell My Concubine or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Hong Kong director Yim Ho handles the clichéd script with little subtlety and punctuates emotional high points of the story with an over-the-top ear-splitting musical score. At one point Andre even pulls out his Puccini record and hits us over the head pointing out the tragedy of similar star-crossed lovers in the opera Madama Butterfly. We've all seen this before and Pavilion falls short by not bringing anything new to the table.