Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brand new movie adapted from Lisa See‘s novel of the same name. Directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), the film and the novel each tell the same story with one difference. The book concerned itself with two laotong (old sames or friends) beginning at end of the 1820’s.The film tells that story as well as the story of two laotong set in present day Shanghai.

Once I heard about this film, I went out and got a hold of the book. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get very far into the book because the foot-bindings – from the broken bones, to the infections, to the draining pus – was more than I could handle. Having said that, I also must say that over the centuries hundreds of thousands of Chinese women had to endure it physically.

The purpose seems two fold to me – keep the women’s feet small and dainty; no doubt to satisfy the thought that a dainty foot was an ideal that the men of China in those times had.  In those days of arranged marriages, a small foot was considered a plus in attracting a better match. If said marriage might turn out to be brutal – a married woman didn’t have many choices as to where she could go.

Wang chose to portray the emotional intimacy in visuals without words ...

We are women. We are born to leave our families.” But if she had a place to go – getting there on bound feet might make it an impossible task.

Fortunately, in the movie, like the book, the foot-bindings occur very early on – but unlike the book, in the film, there was a distinct brevity to what they showed.

For the most part, even though the foot-bindings occur when the laotong are but 7 year old girls, not that much time is spent on that event. Most of the story is about what happens to them as adult women.

So the film has at its core – the story of the two sworn sisters back in 19th century China. The film also includes two modern day Shanghai women who are also laotong and are the descendents of the 19th century protagonists. Evidently the film makers decided that modern audiences would not want to watch a subtitled period film with no western or English speaking characters. So they grafted on the modern laotong which were not in the book.

Bingbing Li as Lilly and Nina

I should say they wrote a whole new story (the modern girls) and used it to wrap around the inner story of the historic girls. The same actresses played both the modern and the historic characters. Bingbing Li plays modern Nina and Lily, while the Korean actress Gianna Jun portrays historic  Snow Flower and Sophia. On the other hand, Hugh Jackman has a small role. He’s onscreen for about 10 minutes in total in three different scenes. In short he was wasted in this film. I’ll call it a marketing ploy.

The husband admires his new bride's foot

The structure of the film is that Sophia is writing a novel about the laotong from nearly two centuries ago. Nina reads the novel and as she does there are the flashbacks to the olden days. Therein lies the most serious flaw of the film.

Gianna Jun as both Snowflake and Sophia

Because of the separation of the old and new the stories are run parallel. Which means we are cutting back and forth. The result is that both stories are hamstrung by this structure. Each story seems to lack depth, and each of the characters find themselves in circumstances that seemingly haven’t developed. They just happen.

I liked the work of the actresses, and the attention paid to the period details are amazing. For all the talk about the laotong being an unbreakable bond – we will be sisters for 10,000 years – each of the laotong pairs did undergo a separation – not just in a physical sense – but also in a spiritual or emotional sense.

Wang should have given us a thoughtful film, instead we are given short shrift in every sense of the word in story depth. Questions aren’t raised, and without questions there are no answers. The music is not just background. It does help in setting of the moods. As for the visuals – the strongest scenes are those in which each set of the laotong simply huddle close. Words aren’t spoken or even necessary in these moments. Are these a prelude to a sexual encounter? We can’t say for certain. But visually these alone make the film worth seeing.

My final thought is that Wang chose to add the modern girls to the film story. But as each of the stories unfold, we will come to discover that each story is the same and the differences are in the times  when each story is set. Like the fan with messages from each of the girls written on the fan’s inner panels is shown to us again and again, so too is the message across time – we will be sisters forever.

The link below is a background piece featuring the novel’s author Lisa See, who discusses the book and the film.


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