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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Holds Many Loud Secrets Within Its Folds

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a nice little story about two women — or, rather, two sets of women living some 180 years apart — who vow “eternal commitment” and frequently stare at one another with dewy adoration. To invoke Pauline Kael’s review of Diane Kurys’s Entre Nous, it’s about two women not having a lesbian affair.

Which would be all well and good, if that vibe were only an undertone, a suggestion that didn’t need to be stated out loud. The problem is that the director of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Wayne Wang — in adapting Lisa See’s best-selling novel — alludes mighty heavily to the women’s devotion and attraction to one another, only to back away from it as if it were something to be ashamed of. Are they or aren’t they? We’re not supposed to ask, but the characters do plenty of telling, in actions rather than words. Watching Snow Flower, I honestly thought it was a thinly veiled plea for acceptance of gay marriage. Instead, I come to find out it’s only about friendship. What a letdown.

See’s book, set in early 19th-century China, details the way a friendship between two women sustains them in a male-dominated society; they communicate via letters written in an ancient secret language used only by women, known as Nushu. The movie version, adapted by Angela Workman and Ron Bass , adds a contemporary element: Nina (Li Bingbing) and Sophia (Gianna Jun) have been best friends since their adolescence in Shanghai. Nina is about to move to New York — her high-powered job, whatever it is, is taking her there — when she learns that Sophia, from whom she’s been estranged for several months, has been hit by a car and is in a coma. Nina rushes to Sophia’s hospital bed and, rifling through her purse, finds a manuscript — Sophia has been working on a book about one of her ancestors, a woman named Snow Flower (also played by Jun), who, growing up in early-19th-century Hunan Province, forged a deep, lifelong friendship with Lily (played by Li Bingbing). As children, Snow Flower and Lily were formally matched as lifelong friends, or laotong, according to Chinese tradition. As grown-ups, their lives took them in separate directions: Lily, born to a poor family, is married off to an affluent husband, while Snow Flower, born to a good family whose name is ruined by her father’s opium habit, ends up matched with a butcher. Although the two friends must spend long stretches of time apart, they communicate — using that aforementioned secret language — by writing messages to one another in the folds of a silk fan they pass between them.

The Nina/Sophia and Lily/Snow Flower stories run on parallel tracks, but the contemporary one — concocted by the screenwriters and not by See — is the real clunker, and the one that causes all the Boston marriage confusion. It’s easy to see how a close friendship between women in early 19th-century China could mean the difference between life and death, and Li Bingbing and Jun put that idea across with reasonable subtlety, given that the movie’s “I am woman, hear me roar” undertones are about as understated as a bachelorette party at Chippendale’s. It doesn’t hurt that the period sections of Snow Flower are stunning to look at: Wang, working with cinematographer Richard Wong, makes the movie look so sumptuous you might want to redecorate your living room around it. As Diana Vreeland would say, Why not recover your old couch in cinnabar red satin?

At one point, Sophia jokingly tries to grab Nina’s boob as the two of them sit up in bed eating takeout. Tee-hee!

Wang, the director behind woman-centric crowdpleasers like The Joy Luck Club and Maid in Manhattan , knows what he’s doing, sometimes for better but often for worse. The brief scenes of footbinding in Snow Flower, accompanied by the horrifyingly soft-yet-sharp sound of bones cracking, are effective and economical. But Wang loses the plot in the contemporary sequences, which are drab looking and stupidly melodramatic. Celebrating Nina’s impending move to New York, Sophia and Nina dance together, sensuously, to Middle Eastern-sounding music in a nearly deserted night club. What’s up with that? At one point, Sophia jokingly tries to grab Nina’s boob as the two of them sit up in bed eating takeout. Tee-hee! Hugh Jackman makes a brief, somewhat bizarre appearance as Sophia’s slick nightclub- owner boyfriend, who’s sort of sleazy, but not that bad — the movie doesn’t know what to make of him, and neither do we.

But by the time — spoiler alert! — Nina decides to forgo her big job in order to stay in Shanghai to be close to her BFF, so they can live through eternity wrapped in each other’s arms, I really began to wonder what on earth audiences are supposed to take away from Snow Flower. I was also puzzled by the fact that Sophia, as her character has been written for the movie, is Korean (as Jun is), yet somehow she has Chinese forebears whose feet were bound — it’s possible, but the movie doesn’t bother to explain. Don’t enough westerners already think all Asian cultures are interchangeable?

The movie, produced by Wendi Murdoch (wife of Rupert) and Florence Sloan (wife of former MGM chairman and chief executive Harry Sloan), was filmed in China, and was financed largely with Chinese money, so whether you like it or not, you can at least understand its stultifying cultural conservatism. But it’s frustrating to see the movie being sold as an example of current Chinese cinema — as Murdoch herself has done in the L.A. Times — when pictures by terrific contemporary Asian filmmakers like Johnny To are barely released in the United States. And in that same L.A. Times story, Wang himself pooh-poohs recent Chinese imports like John Woo’s Red Cliff. “They keep making the same kind of thing — these big, epic sword-fighting period dramas,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of these filmmakers are great storytellers.”

So what does make great storytelling? Snow Flower is being sold as the sort of thing women will go to see with their friends: They’ll laugh, they’ll cry, they’ll walk out of the theater hugging like those plush monkeys whose arms attach around each other with Velcro — but only in a platonic way, you understand. The fan may be mightier than the sword, but it’s also a lot more boring.