SNOW Flower and the Secret of Fan was a disappointment. It was disappointing because it was so easy to envision the wonderful rich tale the film could have been.
At its heart, Snow Flower is a poignant tale of two women and their relationship tightly bound by fate and customs. But in adapting Lisa See’s original novel to the big screen, director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Maid in Manhattan) tries to do too much, and fails to tell the story effectively.
The fact that the film is “inspired” by the novel instead of “based on” says a lot. The addition of a contemporary narrative to parallel a story originally set in 19th century China is a woeful misstep. The parallels across time are made clear in the double roles played by the lead actresses portraying the two best friends – Gianna Jun as Sophia and Snow Flower, and Li Bing Bing as Nina and Lily – but the thread linking the present and the past is flimsy at best.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan opens in present-day Shanghai, where we learn that corporate high-flyer Nina is about to leave for New York. But when her estranged best friend Sophia winds up in hospital, Nina is forced to confront their relationship. Subsequently she discovers a manuscript written by Sophia – the original tale of two best friends in rural 19th century China.
But the film is most effective in its original setting. The exotic backdrop of ancient China evokes centuries-old customs and brings two young girls, Snow Flower and Lily, together. They become sworn sisters for life – laotong (literally ‘same old’), an intimate bond that transcends even marriage. From being born under the same star signs to having their feet bound on the same day (in a rather graphic but well-done scene), they go through the trials of womanhood in traditional China together, and communicate in nu shu, a secret language shared between laotong, by writing on fans.
The present-day narrative lacks the richness and subtleties of its period counterpart. The constant back-and-forth between the time periods is as confusing as whoever’s decision it was to have the lead actresses juggle between Mandarin and English. It is ironic that one of the film’s characters would later exclaim “Enough of this silly English!” in frustration. Perhaps the screenwriters ought to take their own character’s advice.
The biggest twist in the film has unfortunately, nothing to do with the film’s main protagonists, but everything to with Hugh Jackman’s sudden appearance as Sophia’s Australian boyfriend – a club owner in Shanghai. And when he begins crooning in Mandarin, one cannot help but feel embarrassed for him, and sense the filmmaker’s intent to make the most of Jackman’s talent. Was his character even necessary?
Like Jackman’s cameo appearance, too many things are left unexplained or unresolved at the end of the film. The modern-day narrative comes across as an unnecessary trifle. And while the bond between Snow Flower and Lily is effective and moving, the depiction of Sophia and Nina’s relationship is wholly unsatisfying – and on Nina’s part, bordering on obsessive – calling to mind thrillers like Single White Female.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan leaves one feeling extremely dissatisfied, considering the richness of its source material, and the unrealised potential of the film. Had the filmmakers decided to solely focus on the rich layers offered by a narrative set in 19th century China, the story of Snow Flower and Lily would have been an engaging tale to transport yourself back in time into.
If this review wasn’t clear yet, this will be: save your money, and buy the book instead.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will be showing in cinemas from September 15.