Loaded with heart, filled with life and completely entertaining, "The Joy Luck Club" is based on Amy Tan's best-seller, directed by Wayne Wang, with a screenplay by Tan and Ronald Bass ("Rain Man").

This rich and fully dimensional ensemble character study also boasts a first-rate cast of entrancing performers. And though the audience may not have seen many of these players before, there's no question that each will stay in the hearts and minds of those who are fortunate enough to see this film.

With any luck, "The Joy Luck Club" will be a major Oscar contender. (Certainly Wang should be nominated as director, and Tan and Bass for the script.)

Perhaps it should also be said up front that though the characters here are primarily Asian and there are extensive flashbacks to life in China, the relationships between the characters are truly universal.

The setting is modern-day San Francisco, at a party for June (Ming-Na Wen), who is about to embark on her first journey to China.

At this gathering we meet June's friends and relatives while, in flashbacks — and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks — eight human stories unfold, those of four women born into traditional Chinese culture and their adult daughters, all born as Americans.

Each of these stories is ultimately interwoven with the others as we observe the tragedies and triumphs experienced by these older women, and the traditions their daughters have, in some cases, chosen to ignore — or unwittingly embraced in a distorted form. How each comes to terms with these situations is the crux of the film. How the stories are told is the film's main strength.

June's mother, Suyuan (Kieu Chinh) has recently passed away without ever knowing what happened to the two baby daughters she was forced to abandon years before. Lindo (Tsai Chin) was coerced into an unhappy marriage as a teen, though she managed to gain freedom through her wits. The life of An Mei (Lisa Lu) was shaped by her widowed mother's tragic experiences as a concubine. And Ying Ying (France Nuyen) was an abused wife who spent much of her life in a self-imposed state of psychological punishment for an act she committed as a young mother.

Meanwhile, their daughters have problems of their own. Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita), Lindo's daughter, was a former childhood chess prodigy who became frustrated that her mother never seemed to be satisfied with her. An Mei's daughter Rose (Rosalind Chao) has entered into an unhappy mixed marriage as family history seems to be repeating itself. And Lena (Lauren Tom) has spent too much of her life caring for her mentally unstable mother Ying Ying, leading to a tremendous lack of self-worth.

Each of these stories is played out thoughtfully and truthfully, without the stereotypes we so often see in Asian movie characters. Wang, whose work up to now has been strictly low-budget stuff ("Chan Is Missing," "Dim Sum," "Eat a Bowl of Tea"), handles the complications of this large story (and cast) with grace and style. And his flashbacks to China take on an unexpected scope that adds to the film's depth.

Yet, it is the intimacy here that makes the film so compelling. "The Joy Luck Club" is very moving and deserves a wide audience.

The film is rated a relatively soft R for some violence, a few scattered profanities and vulgarities, a sex scene and some brief partial nudity.