The awkwardly titled Snow Flower and the Secret Fan encompasses a much better film than its eye-rolling name would suggest. Director Wayne Wang returns to a somewhat familiar ground that he covered in the multigenerational film The Joy Luck Club in a study of the symbolic sisterhood amongst Chinese women. The century spanning and nonlinear story (based on the novel by Lisa See) works just fine for what it is, but the film curiously pulls its punches while the underlying themes of the film aren’t explored to their full potential.
In present day Shanghai, a young professional named Nina (Bingbing Li) is about to leave for a job opportunity in New York City. She is compelled to stay behind after her former best friend and laotong (or astrologically and spiritually bonded, but not actually related, sister) Sophia (Gianna Jun) is placed into a coma following an accident. While piecing together the details of the accident, Nina reads the manuscript Sophia had been writing during the period when the two friends stopped talking. The manuscript surrounds a relative of Sophia in Hunan in 1829. The story focuses on another pair of laotong, the poor and pitiable Lily (also played by Li) who rises in status through an arranged marriage and the more well off Snow Flower (Jun) who loses status after a similar arrangement gone wrong. The two friends communicate through their own secret language, or nu shu, written on folding fans sent between each other.
The performances are great across the entire film in both the present and the past. Hugh Jackman shows up in a bit of a surprise cameo as Sophia’s night club owning ex-boyfriend. If it matters he does have a (very random) show stopping song and dance number that is worth the price of admission on its own. Unfortunately for a film that hinges on the evil that men can inflict on women, the fact that only Jackman gets a chance to shine out of the entire male case is a real missed opportunity.
The script very deftly balances shifts in time and tone very well between 1929, today, and 1997 when the bond between Sophia and Nina was solidified. The film wisely holds the secrets of the plot close to its chest, only meting out little details when necessary. Wang’s visual eye suits the material very well and the film has a great sense of pacing.
The film’s biggest stumbling point, however would have to be that Wayne is playing the material far too safe. There is a very obvious and palpable lesbian subtext to both major story threads that Wang is either uninterested in or he is mistakenly thinking that he needs to play both stories in a traditionally respectful manner. What could have been a bold statement is instead reduced to the level of a slightly better than decent movie of the week.
Cast: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Archie Kao
Directed by: Wayne Wang
Top image: A scene from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Courtesy Fox Searchlight.