Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Fox Searchlight Pictures, PG-13)

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As if in compensation for a life spent totally under the command of men, the girls are bound to each other as laotong, a rough equivalent to best friends forever.

 

If you're in the market for a good old-fashioned woman's weepie with a tour of modern Shanghai thrown into the bargain, you could certainly do worse than Wayne Wang's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. With Snow Flower Wang returns to subject matter he exploited to good effect in The Joy Luck Club way back in 1993: the lives of Chinese women across the centuries and the bonds of sisterhood among them. Also like The Joy Luck Club, Snow Flower is based on a bestselling book, this time Lisa See's 2005 novel of the same name, and has similarly high production values that go a long way towards overcoming sometimes clunky storytelling.

Two stories run in parallel in Snow Flower, one set in Hunan province in the 19th century and one in present day Shanghai. The same actresses play the leads in both periods. In the 19th century we see Lily (Li Bingbing) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) having their feet broken ("bound feet" is one of those euphemisms that should be driven out of the language—"broken feet" is a far more accurate description of what is actually done) in the hopes that they can thus attract a better, i.e., richer, husband than they would otherwise. You can hear the bones snapping in a gruesome scene that I'm sure is not nearly as bad as the reality of this process, and as adults the women hobble around painfully on the tiny stumps formed after their arches were broken and their toes bent backwards into the soles of their feet. Besides a horrifying historical practice it's a symbol of the limitations of their lives, of course, and Wang returns again and again to feet, from an art exhibit on foot binding to a modern woman massaging her feet (aching from wearing high heels), hammering home this point long after we've already grasped it.

As if in compensation for a life spent totally under the command of men, the girls are bound to each other as laotong, a rough equivalent to best friends forever. They are also taught the woman's language of nu shu (necessary because women were not educated in classical Chinese) which they use to correspond with each other, sending messages written on fans that  sometimes had to be delivered secretly to get around husband and mother-in-law disapproval (and now you know the meaning of the title). Lily makes a good marriage thanks to her "perfect feet" while Snow Flower has to settle for marriage to a butcher as her father has ruined the family's good name by his opium addiction (one of several references to historical events: Britain fought the opium wars to establish their right to serve as drug dealers on a large scale to the Chinese population).

In the modern story Nina (Bingbing) and Sophia (Jun) as adolescents are real best friends forever (by their own free will) in present-day Shanghai, enjoying silly dances and bad music and making faces behind the adults’ backs. A parental attempt to separate them fails and their very modern Auntie (Vivian Wu) introduces the girls to the concept of laotong. Despite their best intentions, life gets in the way of their friendship: Nina becomes a bank executive and is offered a chance to work in New York while Sophia, who is writing a novel which contains the story of Lily and Snow Flower, takes up with a sleazy club owner (Hugh Jackman, who has a good time playing a not-very-attractive character) and plans to move to Australia with him.

The contemporary story was invented for this film and unfortunately it's not nearly as compelling as the 19th-century tale. The constant cutting between the two stories, and the inexplicable scrambling of chronology within the stories also become annoying and impedes the ability of either story to really build emotionally. What does come through is director Wang's respect for the power of female friendship, a welcome alternative to countless films that define female characters only in relation to men.

Richard Wong's cinematography is absolutely stunning as are the art direction by Molly Page and the costumes (no one is credited, but surely they didn't design themselves). The lead actresses are strong in both roles and Vivian Wu makes a real impression as well while the actors in the other roles do what is necessary but are clearly considered part of the background in the script by Angela Workman, Ronald Bass, and Michael K. Ray. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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