Wayne Wang, who scored one of his biggest successes with his adaptation of Amy Tan's bestseller The Joy Luck Club, returns once more to the realm of women's fiction for his latest. Wang's screenwriters have expanded on Lisa See's novel that limns the lifelong bond between two women from vastly different circumstances in 19th century China, adding to that story a 21st century relationship that unfolds along a parallel track. The same actresses comprise the roles of the friends in both the 19th and 21st century stories. This elegant weepie offers plenty for fans of melodrama, character-driven stories and period pieces.
Nina (Bingbing Li) is about to leave Shanghai with her partner Sebastian (Archie Kao) for a new life in New York when she receives word that her best friend Sophia (Gianna Jun) is comatose after an accident. The women hadn't spoken in months after a falling out and Nina didn't even know that Sophia had returned to Shanghai. She turns detective to get at the truth of her pal's life and discovers a manuscript, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," the tale of the high-born Snow Flower (Jun) and peasant Lily (Li) who are united as laotong—"old sames"—a formal match that bonds them as sisters for life.
The two girls communicate in a private language, nu shu, their thoughts and feelings written out on the folds of fans. It is the era of foot binding, the ritual torture paying off for Lily in a big way, her feet considered so perfect that they open doors to a better marriage with a rich and powerful man. Snow Flower is not so lucky. Her family's fortunes take a dive and she makes a marriage with a humble butcher. Even with their circumstances flipped, the women remain close until a rift forms in the wake of war and tragedy.
The modern-day story is not nearly so dramatic, but the circumstances are eerily similar. No arranged marriages or foot binding (although Wang makes witty reference to the contemporary equivalent in a shot of Nina pulling off a stiletto to rub her foot), but class issues prevail. Sophia is born into a wealthy family and Nina is her tutor, and while they may lack a formal laotong contract they are joined in deep friendship in much the same way as their ancestors. And as with Snow Flower and Lily, their positions flip and the relationship eventually suffers for much the same reasons.
Visually, the film is a treat with Richard Wong's cinematography equally evocative at capturing the pastoral beauty and slower rhythms of rural 19th century China and the urban splendor and bustle of today's Shanghai. Both the old and the new stories are moving, but the film has two glaring weaknesses and both are in the 21st century tale. Hugh Jackman, in the small role of Sophia's nightclub impresario boyfriend, is one of them. Nothing against him, but his presence reeks of stunt casting, which is compounded when he gets on the stage of one of his nightclubs and sings—badly and in Chinese. Wang works so hard to create a mood and then derails it—temporarily at least—with a scene that inspires giggles.
A bigger problem is Sophia. Nina, Lily and Snow Flower are all well drawn characters, but perhaps because the adult Sophia spends most of the movie comatose, she is too much of an enigma. Worse, she never seems quite alive. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is elegant and atmospheric. It's also poignant and could have been more so with a stronger Sophia.
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Archie Kao, Hugh Jackman
Director: Wayne Wang
Screenwriters: Angela Workman, Ron Bass, Michael K. Ray
Producers: Wendi Murdoch, Florence Sloan
Rating: PG-13 for sexuality, violence/disturbing images and drug use.
Runtime: 105 min.
Release Date: July 15 ltd.