(2011)3Mark DemingWayne Wang is a gifted filmmaker who seems to have two distinct personalities. There's the idiosyncratic and independent Wayne Wang, who has directed arthouse hits like Smoke, Chan Is Missing, Eat a Bowl of Tea, and The Center of the World. And then there's the major studio director-for-hire Wayne Wang, who cranks out pleasant but sometimes uninspired multiplex fare like Maid in Manhattan, Anywhere But Here, and Last Holiday. 1993's The Joy Luck Club, arguably Wang's best-known picture, came close to merging these two threads; it was a polished adaptation of Amy Tan's best-selling novel that also explored aspects of Asian culture and women's relationships often ignored by Hollywood. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan feels cut from the same cloth as The Joy Luck Club -- it's also adapted from a successful novel (this time by Lisa See) and deals with personal and cultural issues of Asian women in both the 19th and 21st centuries. Despite all their surface similarities, though, this unfortunately plays out like the work of the guy who made Maid in Manhattan; it's a soap opera first and a historical drama second, and while it's beautifully made it isn't especially compelling.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan opens in modern-day Shanghai, where Nina (Li Bingbing) is being feted at a dinner by her business partners, who are sending her to New York City to open a new office for their company. Nina's plans change, however, when she learns that her longtime friend Sophia (Gianna Jun) is in the hospital, comatose after being struck by a car. Nina and Sophia were best friends as teenagers, and when they learned of the Chinese tradition of "laotong," in which girls commit to be friends and mentors to one another for life, they decide to follow that path together. However, while Nina is bright, focused, and determined, Sophia seems to float through life on a cloud of uncertainty, and Nina had lost contact with her after a falling out a few months before the accident. Nina tries to find out where Sophia had been living and what she was doing, and she discovers the manuscript of a novel Sophia had recently completed. As Nina reads the book, the film flashes back to its historical tale of two Chinese women, Lily (also played by Li Bingbing) and Snow Flower (also played by Gianna Jun). Lily and Snow Flower signed a laotong pact as children, but thanks to several years of foot binding, Lily married into a wealthy family, while Snow Flower was matched to a gruff butcher with a violent nature. As disease, revolution, and bad luck take their toll, the women observe the laotong tradition of passing confidential messages to one another, written in a secret code only taught to laotong women, and painted in the folds of fans. But despite their devotion to one another, the two can only maintain an unequal relationship for so long, just as Nina prepares to sacrifice her success to look after Sophia.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a handsomely mounted international production, and cameraman Richard Wong and art director Molly Page have done inspired work, giving the period sequences a rich, well-detailed look that never seems false or overdone, just as the present-day sequences have just the right balance of sheen and big-city grit. However, though the movie looks great, it isn't especially exciting and the dialogue and characters simply don't ring true. The dichotomy between Nina and Sophia (as well as Lily and Snow Flower) is established early on and never changes much, and the film hammers home the same points over and over again. The film's moral seems to be that lasting friendship is important since women lead lives of bitter sacrifice and disappointment, which seems rather curious since these friendships add to the sacrifice and disappointment in their lives rather than buffering them. And while Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun deliver reasonably effective performances in the 19th century sequences, they don't seem as comfortable with the frequent use of English in the modern-day story; also, while the historic sequences deal with women who have been forced into a particular social and economic status by society, the contemporary characters seem no better off for all their freedom. Hugh Jackman gives the story a welcome jolt as one of Sophia's boyfriends (he even does a nightclub routine in Cantonese), but his role is so small that he seems out of place, as if a big star stumbled into this picture by accident. Although the craft of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is excellent, beneath the veneer this movie is short on heart, soul, and logic, and it's the sort of project both Wayne Wangs should have had the sense to avoid.
The descendants of two 19th century spiritual sisters struggle to maintain their enduring bond by exploring their ancestral connection in modern-day Shanghai. Connected as "laotong" (old sames) at the tender age of seven, Snow Flower and Lily grow up in isolation and develop a language all their own. In the folds of a white silk fan, they exchange furtive messages that only they can decipher. Meanwhile, in 21st century China, Flower's and Lily's descendants Nina and Sophia find the growing demands of their respective careers and their complicated love lives threatening to drive them apart. Only by focusing on the timeless messages hidden between the folds of that cherished fan will Nina and Sophia find the secrets to keeping their friendship alive, and avoid letting the demands of modern living shatter an ancient bond of friendship. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was adapted from author Lisa See's best-selling novel of the same name.