Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
US/China, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 101 mins.
Director: Wang Ying 王颖 [Wayne Wang].
More fortune-cookie chinoiserie from US-based director Wang Ying [Wayne Wang] that even undercuts the novel’s plus points.
Shanghai, the present day. About to leave for a job in New York with her colleague Sebastian (Gao Shengyuan), bank employee Nina Wei (Li Bingbing) is told that her closest friend, Liao Xuemei, aka Sophia Liao (Jeon Ji-hyeon), is seriously ill in hospital after a traffic accident. Nina has not seen Sophia since the latter suddenly left for Sydney, Australia, after meeting Shanghai night-club owner Archie (Hugh Jackman). Back in 1997, they had bonded as teenagers when Sophia, a Chinese from South Korea, had been staying with her aunt and Nina had later helped her with her Mandarin exam at school. Sophia’s conservative aunt had disapproved of Nina’s influence, though her other aunt (Wu Junmei) had befriended Nina. In early 19th century rural China, in Hunan province, Sophia’s great-great grandmother Xuehua, aka Snow Flower (Jeon Ji-hyeon), had formed a close childhood friendship with Baihe, aka Lily (Li Bingbing), from a richer family, when they both had their feet bound on the same day at the age of seven. They communicated their innermost feelings via a secret written language (nvshu 女书) used only by women in Hunan and written inside folding fans. When the grown Lily was married off to a salt trader’s son, she continued to keep secretly in touch with Snow Flower in this way. Snow Flower was married off to a butcher (Jiang Wu) and, several years later, when Lily travelled to meet her, the village was suddenly evacuated during the Taiping Rebellion. Meanwhile, in modern Shanghai, Nina has decided to stay at Sophia’s bedside and not to go to New York. She tries to find out why Sophia secretly returned from Sydney and lived on her own, working on a book about her great-great-grandmother.
Now 62, Hong Kong-born, US-based Wang Ying 王颖 [Wayne Wang], who’s forged the best part of a career peddling Chinese cultural cliches to western audiences, hits close to rock bottom in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan 雪花秘扇, a sumptuously shot slice of widescreen exoticism about a love-unto-death friendship between two sets of women – one in contemporary Shanghai, the other in 19th-century Hunan province. The original 2005 novel by American writer Lisa See (herself ⅛th Chinese, and known in China as 邝丽莎) is a cut above most of the Asian feminist-miserabilist canon by overseas Chinese writers that’s found a market in the West – partly thanks to See’s wealth of detail and unpretentious style, and its use of the Hunan “secret women’s writing” nvshu 女书 as a dramatic device. But where the novel was entirely set in the past as a reminiscence by one of the characters in old age, Wang has insisted on a contemporary parallel story that disrupts the emotional flow and raises all sorts of extra problems.
The 19th-century story, heavily compressed by Angela Workman (The War Bride, 2001) into a series of tableaux, is interwoven with a modern tale – invented by veteran scriptwriter Ronald Bass (Rain Man, 1988) and Michael K. Ray (Wang’s The Princess of Nebraska, 2007) – that tries to create a way less believable friendship set in modern Shanghai featuring Snow Flower’s great-great-granddaughter. The problem is that there’s no convincing parallel between a deep friendship that was a formalised product of 19th-century social restrictions and one set in the 21st century which has none of those restrictions. The latter, especially, only makes sense as a latent lesbian attraction – an area the movie strongly flirts with (in both stories) but seems unwilling to really get into.
What the audience is left with are lots of lingering looks between the two women, reams of poetic written exchanges hidden in the 19th-century fans, and acres of chinoiserie (picture-postcard Old China) and contemporary cliches (buildings being demolished in modern Shanghai, trendy nightclubs, etc.). What’s missing is any genuine emotion to ride above the cliches, especially with dialogue that’s as phoney as the snow in the Taiping Rebellion sequence.
One of China’s finest young actresses, Li Bingbing 李冰冰 gives her character the best possible shot in the circumstances, though her delivery in English-language scenes is stilted. Mouthing Mandarin but revoiced, South Korea’s Jeon Ji-hyeon 전지현 | 全智贤 (My Sassy Girl 엽기적인 그녀, 2001) is even more shackled by acting in two languages she’s not comfortable in, and lacks Li’s technique to rise above these obstacles. More importantly, the actresses have no special screen chemistry to convince the audience of their deep friendship. Apart from Australia’s Hugh Jackman, who simply looks like he’s stumbled into the wrong movie – especially when performing a love song in a nightclub – other roles are okay within their cliched confines.
Terrific widescreen photography by Huang Shining 黄世宁 [Richard Wong] (The Princess of Nebraska; Colma: The Musical, 2006), with cool, clean modern sections and chiaroscuro period ones, complements the professional production design by Hong Kong’s Wen Nianzhong 文念中 [Man Lim-chung] (Crossing Hennessy 月满轩尼诗, 2010; Triple Tap 枪王之王, 2010), and earns the 3/10 movie an extra point. Rachel Portman, who scored Wang’s equally cliched The Joy Luck Club (1993) almost 20 years ago, serves up a suitably oriental-flavoured score that slickly packages the whole fortune cookie.
The film is the first production by Los Angeles-based BigFeet Productions, founded by Shandong-born Deng Wendi 邓文迪 [Wendi Deng Murdoch], [now ex-]wife of Rupert Murdoch, and Kuala Lumpur-born Florence Low Sloan, wife of former MGM chairman/CEO Harry Sloan, and is partly funded by Beijing-based Sky Land Entertainment, set up to bankroll crossover projects for both Chinese and US audiences.
Presented by Shanghai Film Group Shanghai Film Studio (CN), IDG China Creative Media (CN), Huayi Brothers Media Group (CN), Huayi Union Culture Media Investment (CN), Sky Land Entertainment (CN), Trends Magazines (CN). Produced by BigFeet Productions (US).
Script: Angela Workman, Ronald Bass, Michael K. Ray, Shen Yili. Novel: Lisa See. Photography: Huang Shining [Richard Wong]. Second unit photography: Lu Hongxuan [Andrew Loo]. Editing: Deidre Slevin. Music: Rachel Portman. Production design: Wen Nianzhong [Man Lim-chung]. Costume design: Wen Nianzhong [Man Lim-chung]. Sound: Christopher Quilty, Lewis Goldstein. Special effects: Liu Weijie. Visual effects: Joseph DiValerio.
Cast: Li Bingbing (Nina Wei; Baihe/Lily), Jeon Ji-hyeon (Sophia Liao/Liao Xuemei; Xuehua/Snow Flower), Hugh Jackman (Arthur), Wu Junmei [Vivian Wu] (Liao Xuemei’s aunt), Jiang Wu (Xuehua’s husband, butcher), Wang Shengde [Russell Wong] (China Everbright Bank CEO), Jiang Yi (Anna), Hu Jingjun (Mrs. Liao), Cao Shiping (Mr. Wei, Nina’s father), Zhang Ruijia (Mrs. Wei, Nina’s mother), Gao Shengyuan [Archie Kao] (Sebastian), Gong Zhebing (professor), Zhou Yanling (nurse), Dai Yan (young Xuehua), Xu Yulan (Xuehua’s mother), Guo Congmeng (young Baihe), Wang Shiming (footbinder), Xu Yuming (Baihe’s mother), Xu Shouqin (Baihe’s father), Tang Ying (Madame Wang), Chen Tao (Da Lang), Sun Feihu (Mr. Lu), Lv Zhong (Mrs. Lu), Mian Mian (Claire), Lv Xiaolin (Yonggang), Fang Zhoubo (Mr. Liao), Ding Xiaohu (TV newscaster), Li Qiang (exam official), Zhang Liqiu (butcher’s mother), Andy Gao (barman), Lin Ying (Lianhua/Lotus), Li Huixia (Mrs. Ye), Jin Pei (Xuemei’s landlady), Meng Fanhua (bathhouse receptionist), Qu Rongyi (Chunyue/Spring Moon, aged 15).
Release: US, 15 Jul 2011; China, 24 Jun 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 25 Jul 2011.)