Set in 19th Century China and 2011 Shanghai, this tale is about the lifelong friendships between four young girls, Lily (Bingbing Li) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) over 150 years ago, and Nina and Sophia (Li and Jun) today. This centuries-spanning tale of loyalty and companionship and the lasting bond of laotong is examined in “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.”
Laotong, or Old-Sames, is a contract of choice between two girls, declaring eternal fidelity and sistership in pre-modern China. This “choice” was significant in a culture where female children are forced to undergo the brutal ritual of foot-binding to make their feet more petit to attract a husband in an arrange marriage. (I am pretty hardcore when it comes to watching some disturbing things as a film critic but I could not watch the foot-binding ritual depicted in “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”).
That said, I am surprised that “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is from the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Wayne Wang. It wants to be an epic but is more a soap opera, especially with its modern story about Nina and Sophia. Wang uses the too-often-done flash back and forward technique to tell his two tales (adapted from the Lisa See novel). This flashing to and from each story also takes place within old tale and new, making things very confused because of its non-linear style.
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” works best with its elegant period story between Lily and Snow Flower. This portion is rich in set, costume and is sumptuously photographed by Richard Wong. The period detail and look into a culture that I was surprised to know so little about makes this aspect of the film intriguing. (After seeing “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” I immediately started searching the Internet to learn more about the culture and customs of China in the 19th Century, so the film did have an impact on me.)
Unfortunately, the soap opera that is the modern day story about the bond between Nina and Sophia is muddled with its combination of their laotong bonding and the new millennium life choices they must make. The problem is, I cared far more about Lily and Snow Flower than I did for their 21st Century counterparts and this makes for mixed feelings. It is tough to balance two stories set so far apart in time but I expected more from a veteran director like Wayne Wang. Another problem is that the actresses, Li and Jun, did not evoke my empathy, particularly for Nina and Sophia.
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” works on some levels – production values are high, especially in the flashback story – but fails on others, making me disappointed and, too frequently, bored. This is not a good thing. I give it a C.
Just after Nina (Bingbing Li, "The Forbidden Kingdom") gets word that she is being sent from Shanghai to open a New York office for her company, she hears that her estranged best friend, Sophia (Gianna Jun, "Blood: The Last Vampire") is in a coma in the hospital. While Nina tries to figure out where Sophia has been living and what has happened in her life, she discovers the book Sophia has been writing, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."
Just what does producer Wendi Murdoch (wife of Rupert) have on Hugh Jackman to get him to appear in a minor supporting role in this piece of manufactured melodrama? Whatever happened to the Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club," "Because of Winn Dixie") of "Chan Is Missing?" Despite its 'exotic' title, this film reeks of everything that is wrong with commercial cinema these days - get "The Joy Luck Club's" screenwriter (Ron Bass, "Amelia," adapting a book not by Amy Tan, but Lisa See) and director (Wang), find its cultural hook (foot binding) and play up a parallel between past and present using the same actresses and what do you get? Nothing more than a badly done, cheesy beach read. "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is one of the worst, most deadly boring films of 2011.
In the present we learn that Nina was a poor Chinese teenager who was teaching Sophia, a Korean, Mandarin until Sophia's evil stepmother Mrs. Liao (Hu Qing Yun) through her out for her bad musical taste and oily buns. The girls not only continued to be friends, but signed a 'laotong' contract, declaring eternal sisterhood to each other (the film completely skirts the lesbian agenda, but does flirt with one 'almost' kiss). We then flash back to Lily (Li), a poor Chinese girl who is having her feet painfully bound in order to improve her marriage chances. The matchmaker finds Lily a laotong in the upper class Snow Flower (Jun) before a husband and the two bond. In both stories, there is a reversal of fortune and the once wealthy girl shows a deeper love for the other by driving her away (so that the writers, which include Angela Workman and Michael Ray) can give us a tearful reconciliation times two).
Structurally, the film pings and pongs between present, present past, past and past past and Wang seems to never have met a '1 year later' or '6 months earlier' subtitle he didn't like. The film progresses in fits and starts, not always logically but always obviously. In the present, for example, Nina takes an exam for Sophia that gets them both in trouble. Nina cannot retake the test for three years, so we get a transitional scene of her waiting tables then taking a break while cracking the books, then bingo, right into a prestigious job. Sophia's Aunt (Vivian Wu, "The Pillow Book") owns a gallery called Never (B)ind which features pictures of bound feet that do not do justice to the barbarity of the practice, although Wang, at least, shows Lily hobbling around on what look like horses' hooves. Nina is, of course, shown rubbing her feet after removing a pair of heels. The 'secret fan' of the title is a fan passed back and forth between Lily and Snow Flower with messages, although there are more messages than fan and it's never clear if there are more than one. Snow Flower is married to a boorish butcher (Wu Jiang, "To Live," "Shower") who later is shown grieving outside his wife's death bed, because Snow Flower has told Lily she loves him. The character is as black and white and undecipherable as Sophia's present day ex-lover Arthur (Hugh Jackman, "X-Men," "Australia") whom Nina decides is bad news for no discernable reason. The parallels go on and on (Sophia/Snow Flower's attachment to weak fathers) ad nauseum.
Wang's production is fine - art direction, cinematography, costumes, makeup are all blameless, although Rachel Portman's ("Never Let Me Go") score is predictable. But the acting ranges from wooden to bland and Wang's overall direction of the material makes one envy Sophia's coma. "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is naught but a shameless formula grab.
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