Although, like most directors, Wayne Wang's films have covered a lot of ground, he seems drawn primarily to two things: projects that show American and Chinese cultures in subtle-yet-sharp clashes, and screenplays that delve into the sensitive and mysterious world of women's psyches--particularly Chinese women, or Chinese-American women in conflict with Old World values.
In 1993 he successfully adapted Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," which tells of four Asian women and their daughters using flashbacks into past lives that help them to understand each other better. Then with "The Princess of Nebraska" (2007), he explored the life of a pregnant Chinese girl as she struggled to adapt to living in the United States in a film that was based on a short story from Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li. That same year he directed "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," based on Li's award-winning short story collection about life in China and the U.S.
Now Wang gives us "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," adapted from a novel by the same name from Lisa See, who wrote about Lily and Snow Flower and the laotong pact that they signed to be sworn sisters forever. Key to communication in 1800s China for women who had to defer to fathers and husbands was a method of writing on fans that only they could decipher. Call it the Sisterhood of the Secret-Language Fans.
The premise is interesting enough on its own, but Wang, whose mindset seems to be always having one foot in the present and one in the past, adds a modern laotong pair to create a parallel, as if to imply that the status and core emotions of women may not have changed all that much over the past century and a half. While such major alterations probably won't set well with fans of the novel, it does complicate an otherwise straightforward narrative, situating the film in three time periods: 1829 China, Hunan Province, where Lily and Snow Flower live out their selfless (subservient?) lives, partly determined by how successful a painful footbinding was to make their feet small and perfect; 1997 Shanghai, where BFFs Nina and Sophia, a Korean who was adopted by another family, have all the hopes and dreams of typical teenagers; and the present day in China, where, in melodramatic "An Affair to Remember" fashion, one of them is struck by a taxi and the other is on the verge of attaining professional success that would take her to America.
So who needs the Empire State Building?
Wang's juxtapositional treatment explores how an Old World concept like laotong would fare in modern times, and it's worth exploring. I liked this movie . . . but it would have been much more interesting if there were more contrasts than similarities. Then again, anything associated with "sisterhood" seems to succumb to obviousness, and "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is no exception. At times, you feel as if the whole sisterhood thing is used as a club to bludgeon viewers, even if you think you're already enlightened, it's so overdone . . . and so borderline melodramatic that the pacing seems slower than you'd like it to be.
The strongest sections are the 19th century China vignettes featuring the lower-class Lily (Li Bing Bing) and upper-class Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) who are bound by laotong because a matchmaker saw similarities. But after each is married, their situations are dramatically different, and the marriages threaten their ability to remain in close contact with each other. Bing Bing and Jun play the modern sisters too, which I think is a stroke of genius because it implies a continuity of culture that cannot be broken. Hugh Jackman appears in a brief role, but it's the two stars that carry this film.
Were it not for the slow pacing and the obviousness of message, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" would have been successful. As is, it's not a strong enough film to bear re-watching. With or without the footbinding.
"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, disturbing images, and drug use.
"Snow Flower" looks very good in 1080p, transferred to a 50GB disc using the AVC/MPEG-4 codec. There are no artifacts that I could discern, and the level of detail, despite lower black levels than usual, is perfect, given the historical periods that the film covers. It's presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a richly textured English and Mandarin DTS-HD MA 5.1, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and the ambient sounds that come from the rear effects speakers add to the richness without calling attention to themselves. The subwoofer won't get much of a workout, because it is a dialogue-driven film, but there are segments when (as in a modern-day club) things start to rock ). Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Apart from the trailer, there's only one bonus feature: "The Sworn Sisterhood of the Secret Fan," and it covers the ground between book (See appears on-camera) and film, with Wang defending his decision to add a modern parallel narrative and the actors talking about their characters. It only runs 29 minutes long, but as making-of features go it's a good one.
"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is a little too heavy-handed and the parallels from the two narratives are too uncomfortably similar, but fans of Wang, the Chinese immigrant experience, and "chick flicks" ought to like "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."