Director Wayne Wang grew up in a Hong Kong household that worshipped at the altar of Hollywood -- he himself was named for movie star John Wayne. After attending California's College of Arts and Sciences, Wang returned to Hong Kong hoping to become a film "auteur." However, at that time, his native country's film industry was geared more to kung-fu movies than to the cinema of personal statement, so Wang had to wait a while to express his vision.
After a stint in television, Wang handled direction of the Hong Kong-based scenes of the American film Golden Needles (1975), and then co-directed a melodrama shot in San Francisco, A Man, a Woman and a Killer (1975). Realizing that the mainstream would continue to stifle his creativity, Wang sought out funding from various arts foundations, then produced, directed, edited, and co-wrote the Chinatown culture-clash drama Chan Is Missing (1981) on a beggarly 22,000 dollar budget. Wang soon discovered that he was most effective marching to his own beat; an attempt at "popular" moviemaking, Slam Dance (1987), failed to make the turnstiles click, while the more unconventional Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989) proved to be an audience pleaser. In 1993, the director reached mainstream audiences with his adaptation of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, a Chinese generational epic, and followed with an adaptation of Paul Auster's Smoke (1995), starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt; the film's follow-up, a series of sketches involving many of the same characters called Blue in the Face, was released in 1995. Wang returned to Hong Kong once again to shoot Chinese Box (1997), a story set around the British hand-over of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Starring Gong Li and Jeremy Irons, the film received mixed notices. However, such lukewarm reception did little to dim the anticipation surrounding Wang's next directorial effort, Anywhere But Here. A 1999 adaptation of a Mona Simpson novel, it starred Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman as a mother and daughter trying to begin a new life.