By Marc Glassman
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Wayne Wang, director
Angela Workman, Ronald Bass & Michael Ray, script from the novel by Lisa See
Starring: Bingbing Li (Nina/Lily), Gianna Jun (Snow Flower/Sophia), Russell Wong (Bank CEO), Archie Kao (Sebastian), Hugh Jackman (Arthur), Vivian Wu (Aunt)
Veteran director Wayne Wang, whose most famous film is The Joy Luck Club, continues his exploration of Asian-American culture with a remarkably free adaptation of Lila See’s best selling novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. While See’s book is set in 19th century and depicts the friendship of two women, Snow Flower and Lily,
Wang’s cinematic version boldly adds a contemporary tale of two Asian-American descendents Nina and Sophia, who also forge a special relationship.
Both the novel and the film concentrate on a unique custom among women in Southern China. For centuries, many have formed intimate friendships called “laotong” or “old sames,” which start from childhood and are maintained throughout their lives. In the book See wrote: “A laotong match is as significant as a good marriage… A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity.”
Wong follows up on that notion, suggesting that a modern version of that kind of ‘match’ is likely to occur today, even in the West. His film starts in the present, with Nina rushing from New York to China to be at the bedside of Sophia, who has been severely injured in a bicycle accident and is in a coma. Like their ancestors, the two young women have performed the laotang ritual and are fated to be sisters for life. As Nina waits for Sophia to recover, the film flashes back, to tales of how they formed their friendship during the last 15 years and further into the past, to the stories of Snow Flower and Lily in the 19th century.
Snow Flower and Lily were raised in the period when foot binding was still customary, especially in rural China. As seven year olds, they were bound in friendship even as their mobility was permanently impaired. The two learned “nu shu,” the secret written language of women and began to correspond with each other in the folds of a silk fan. As the two grew to adulthood, Lily married well, as her beautifully bound feet made her an object of desire among richer elements of Chinese society. Snow Flower, from a wealthier background, fell precipitously and found herself married to a butcher, who abused her regularly. Despite the intense civil war created by the religiously inspired Taiping Rebellion, the two remained devoted friends throughout lives of suffering and hardship.
In modern day Manhattan, Shanghai, San Francisco and Hong Kong, the story of Sophia and Nina is still being played out. Though their lives have already had melodramatic twists involving angry aunts and cheating on exams and–now–a biking disaster, they still have hope.
Wang’s film leaves us with a slow stirring of optimism–and it’s one that the viewer is urged to grasp. But it’s fair to say that the preceding two hours of narrative have been characterized by tragedy and despair only barely made palatable by the wonderful bonds formed by the two pairs of remarkable women. Though Snow Flower and the Secret Fan does offer some beautiful scenes and a greater awareness of the lives women led in China’s past, it is a slow-paced, melodramatic film, clearly out of step with modern cinematic taste.