In 19th-century China, seven-year-old girls Snow Flower and Lily are matched as 'old sames' and communicate via a secret language between the folds of a white silk fan. Meanwhile, in contemporary Shanghai, their descendants, Nina and Sophia, struggling to maintain the intimacy of their own childhood friendship due to adult demands, look into their past for clues.
Hong Kong-born director Wayne Wang explores 'laotong," the traditional Chinese practice in which two women bind themselves as sisters for life, in this handsomely shot but overly sentimental melodrama.
It’s a fascinating subject which is graced by superb performances from Li Bingbing and Korean actress Gianna Jun but marred by jerky segues between two parallel stories, an increasingly soppy, maudlin tone and the use of Hugh Jackman as a corny and unconvincing plot contrivance.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the maiden effort from Los Angeles-based Big Feet Productions launched by two well-heeled Asian women: Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi and Florence Sloan, Malaysian-born wife of former MGM chairman Harry Sloan.
The family connection may have encouraged Murdoch’s Fox Searchlight to acquire the US rights, where the film has grossed a modest $1.3 million in five weeks.
The screenplay by Angela Workman, Ronald Bass and Michael K. Ray grafts a narrative set in contemporary Shanghai onto elements of a 2005 novel by Lisa See which chronicles events in China’s Hunan province in the 19th Century.
The opening focuses on ambitious Shanghai bank executive Nina (Li) who’s about to be promoted to New York when she learns her once close friend Sophia (Junn) is in hospital in a coma after a traffic accident.
In the first flashback, we learn how the women bonded as teenagers in 1997 after Sophia moved to Shanghai from Korea and Nina tutored her in Mandarin.
The timeline then shifts to Hunan in 1829 to record the sisters-for-life pledge made as seven-year-olds by Sophia’s great-great grandmother Snow Flower (Jun) and Lily (Li) on the day their feet were painfully bound, a custom meant to ensure both would find a 'good husband." Forbidden from seeing each other, they communicated for years via a secret language known as Nüshu used by women in Hunan and written inside folding fans as they’re married off, bear children and suffer mightily.
Thereafter the film switches back and forth between those three eras, including a dramatically-charged sequence during the Taiping Rebellion, a structure which interrupts the narrative flow and dilutes the tension as the women take different paths.
It emerges that Nina hadn’t seen Sophia since the latter moved to Australia and it was a painful parting while Snow Flower and Lily similarly became estranged. The main suspense revolves around how these sisters-for-life were torn apart and in finding out if and how they reunite.
Nina abandons plans to move to Gotham, maintains a bedside vigil and discovers Sophia was writing a book about her great-great grandma.
Without giving away any spoilers, the flimsiest pretext is provided for the Sophia and Nina break-up. As for Hugh’s cameo, suffice to say he gets to croon a song in Mandarin and English but he’s scarcely a well-rounded character, functioning as a plot device. Indeed, virtually all the men portrayed here are thinly-sketched or clichés, which may not bother those who crave a sentimental chick flick about love and loyalty.
A deep friendship between two women is a timeless theme but it’s a stretch for Wang and the scriptwriters to draw any meaningful parallels between life in feudal China with its subjugation of women and arranged marriages, and present day progressive, economically booming Shanghai.