A woman’s bound foot is a knarled mass of black and blue. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan reveals this metaphor for women’s suffering. Bound feet were called “golden lilies” in ancient China. The soft bones of young feet were broken, making girls highly prized as wives. “Only through pain will you find beauty,” Snow Flower is told. Misery is just beginning for two pairs of friends in this uneven drama, now playing at Bow Tie Cinemas, Hartford, CT.
Snow Flower reveals Chinese tradition and modernity with respect. It’s filled with beautiful scenery and costuming. Still it never captures the depth that women’s friendships must have had then and now. The laotong – “old sames” who enter an arranged friendship and vow eternal devotion – hobble on impossibly tiny, misshapen feet. They communicate in a secret language called nu shu, writing messages in the folds of silk fans.
Unnecessarily complicating Amy See’s novel of the same name, director Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing; The Joy Luck Club; Maid in Manhattan) adds a second set of friends in modern day Shanghai. He then forces a comparison between modern and ancient friends. Attempting to cover too much ground, the movie jumps back and forth in time. Finally the historic tale is more developed and intriguing.
Bingbing Li plays Lily, a bank executive. Gianna Jun stars as Sophia, a writer. As soon as we meet the two best friends forever, we are transported to 19th century Hunan province. There, Li and Jun play Nina and Snow Flower respectively. The film cuts quickly back and forth to various points in the parallel stories.
Nina and Snow Flower enter arranged marriages and have children. Snow Flower’s husband (Jiang Wu) beats her, but she will not leave him. Typhus wipes out family members. Bands of rebels invade villages.
Under Shanghai’s modern, dim cityscape, Sophia rides her bike in traffic. She collides with a taxi. As Sophia clings to life in a hospital bed, Lily investigates her friend, hoping to find why they have drifted apart. Lily visits a modern art exhibit about foot binding. Images of disfigured feet line a wall. A pop art sign declares: (N)EVER BIND.
When Wang experiments with different cameras for the two eras, this adds to the unevenness. The comparison between past and present is strained.
Good acting by all cannot overcome the film’s awkward structure. In a distracting thread, Hugh Jackman appears briefly as Arthur, Sophia’s Australian lover and club owner. It isn’t the best role for talented Jackman, although he does sing in Mandarin.
The eroticism of two women deeply devoted to each other is only hinted at in long looks and a near-kiss. Perhaps Wang believed it was not necessary to include lesbian love here. Acknowledging the characters’ desires more openly would have helped illumine these relationships.
Snow Flower ends too neatly with a message that misses the point. These suffering women don’t yet love themselves. True empowerment comes from within.
If you like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you might enjoy: Queen to Play; Incendies; Mother and Child.
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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan 2011 / PG-13 / 1 hour, 40 min
Cast Overview: Gianna Jun, Bingbing Li, Vivian Wu, Jiang Wu, Russell Wong, Archie Kao and Hugh Jackman
Director: Wayne Wang
Genre: Drama, Foreign Film, Movies Based on the Book
Languages: Chinese and English with English subtitles