What should be a moving testament to the enduring friendship between two Chinese women instead plays like a bewildering apologia for co-dependency issues in “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” Mawkish, clunky and unenlightening about female suffering in this or any generation, director Wayne Wang’s nuance-free adaptation of Lisa See’s 2005 bestseller suggests a stray thread wisely discarded from the helmer’s “The Joy Luck Club,” and looks to deliver perhaps a fraction of that 1993 hit’s B.O. impact in limited release. Asian/distaff appeal and the source material’s popularity could improve Fox Searchlight’s fortunes in ancillary.
Rather than faithfully adapting See’s saga about the uncommonly intimate bond between 19th-century gal pals Lily (China’s Li Bingbing) and Snow Flower (South Korea’s Gianna Jun), Wang has his scribes cook up a soapy framing device set in 1990s Shanghai, featuring the same actresses cast as two urban women facing similar tests of friendship.
Successful businesswoman Nina (Li) is preparing to move to her firm’s new Gotham headquarters when she learns her estranged best friend, Sophia (Jun), has been involved in a near-fatal bike crash. With Sophia lying comatose for most of the picture, the jittery, time-shuffling script piles on flashbacks to the girls’ marginally happier teenage years before contriving to have Nina read the novel Sophia was working on before her accident.
Sophia’s manuscript (which bears the film’s title) initiates a scenic transition to a village in Hunan province, around 1829. There, Lily (played as a child by Guo Congmeng) and Snow Flower (Dai Yan) are ritually paired as laotong, or lifelong companions — a mutually beneficial arrangement (in theory) intended to make both girls more desirable in the eyes of potential suitors. Central to their blossoming relationship is the exchange of secret messages written on white silk fans, using a unique language taught exclusively to women.
But while Lily’s tiny, perfectly bound feet soon land her a high-born husband, poor Snow Flower must content herself with a lowly and abusive butcher (Jiang Wu). Lily’s in-laws urge her to shun Snow Flower, a typhoid epidemic breaks out, and eventually the Taiping Rebellion begins, the historical import of which is treated as secondary to the dramatic obstacle it poses to Lily and Snow Flower’s relationship. Back in the present day, opportunity knocks for Nina while Sophia drifts aimlessly through life, forcing the smart, capable woman to make repeated sacrifices for her less-privileged friend.
Lurching inelegantly back and forth in time, and resisting no opportunity to draw facile parallels along the way (the significance of which is hammered home by lines like “Fate has taught me that I am just another woman”), the film clearly attempts to make some sort of statement about the universal nature of gender-based oppression and the transcendent power of sisterhood from one epoch to the next. The coarse conclusion it leaves us with is that history essentially doesn’t matter; certainly it can’t compete here with the film’s fetishization of female friendship, which remains strictly platonic yet takes on an almost idolatrous intensity. Not surprisingly, men are almost entirely marginalized here, a repressive force lurking outside the frame.
Wang renders Lily and Snow Flower’s tale with none of the attention to class specifics and precise character detail found in See’s novel. Yet it’s still preferable to that of Nina and Sophia, who are forced to speak in stilted English — a commercially motivated decision that squanders Li and Jun’s naturally expressive gifts, though both actresses come off better elsewhere.
Bit-player casting of Hugh Jackman as Sophia’s nightclub-star boyfriend (offering the thesp an incongruous showcase for his singing chops) feels like an obvious attempt to inject this drab picture with some pizzazz and prestige. Pic was largely spearheaded by first-time producer Wendi Murdoch, the wife of currently embattled News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, who owns the picture’s North American distributor.
Period trappings are fine but unremarkable. D.p. Richard Wong provides a tidy visual contrast between a warmer, more sumptuous look for the 19th-century scenes and cooler, more muted tones for the contempo ones; neither story seems to advance for more than a minute without being shellacked in Rachel Portman’s string-heavy score. Dialogue is often not just bad but badly dubbed.