Snow Flower and the Secret Fan | Film reviews, news & interviews
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Wayne Wang's so-so chick flick portrays the lives of Chinese women today and in the 1800s
World cinema – like its cousin world music – is an awkward generic term that we generally apply to the output of those far-off countries or cultures about which we know (and perhaps if we are really honest, care) little. Watching movies with subtitles which attempt to parse actions and customs that are alien to our Western mores may give us a cosy, self-righteous glow inside, but we are also relieved to know that we don’t have to live those deprived (though perhaps somewhat colourful and picturesque) lives.
But over the past few years, as we have watched our hemisphere’s economic security wobble, those very countries – indeed continents – whose cultural output we have smugly labelled “world” in the recent past are now busy stealing a march on us, and very soon may be giving us our marching orders.
And just as Bollywood (perhaps a patronising term we should dispense with along with the aforementioned “world” prefix) has been upgraded into being taken seriously as an important stand-alone genre with its own criteria to discover in lock-step with the emergence of India as an economic behemoth which has recently overtaken the UK in GDP, so it is that we now watch film coming out of the People's Republic of China with a new alertness. Beijing is currently helping to dictate (so to speak) our future financial fortunes, so perhaps we’d better check out what we can glean about the secrets of their success through their cinema.
All the more so, because Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a big-budget co-production between IDG China Media of Shanghai and Fox Searchlight. Perhaps the most significant name on the credits is not that of Wayne Wang, the veteran Chinese-American director with some 20 films under his belt - notably The Joy Luck Club, Smoke and The Princess of Nebraska - nor either of the female leads (the popular Korean Gianna Jun and the major star Li Bing Bing, [pictured right]), but that of one of the producers, one Wendi Deng.
The production, loosely based on the novel by Lisa See, was fast-tracked by Mr Wendi Deng, who happens to be the controller of 20th Century Fox, and indeed News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch. Not wishing to risk being on the receiving end of a bitch slap from Mrs Murdoch, the Tiger Wife of this summer’s phone-tapping hearings in Parliament, one goes into this film with a sense of real curiosity. Partly set in contemporary Shanghai, interwoven with a parallel storyline in the late 19th century, what secrets of the Chinese dragon can it reveal?
Nothing that Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige or Wong Kar-Wei might have served up: this is a chick flick with little deeper resonance, despite its best intentions. Recounting the same story in two different parallel time frames is nothing new, but the way that Wayne Wang has interwoven the separate sequences offers little to make either story sing.
We learn something interesting: that for almost two centuries, Chinese culture has featured a formal BBF relationship between females: laotong (literally “same old”) was based on astrological readings (like some Indian arranged marriages), so that parents of baby girls could plan out their future “Best Friends Forever” from the cradle. And so it was between Snow Flower (Gianna Jun, pictured below, on the right) and Lily (Li Bing Bing), whose lifelong friendship is also forged by their Lotus Foot procedures, which we see (or more excruciatingly, hear, as tiny foot bones crack). Lily is the pretty and smarter one, Snow Flower draws a much shorter straw.
The modern strand sees Li Bing Bing as the alpha babe banker Nina, who has a complex relationship with her needy and petulant laotong Sophia, whose almost fatal bicycle accident in Shanghai, which occurs just as Nina is partying prior to departure for a glittering career in the Big Apple, provides the plot nexus. Exploring the comatose Sophia’s shabby digs for clues of her wayward behaviour, Nina discovers the manuscript recounting the complex story of the two friends’ laotong ancestors, written up in the folds of a series of white silk fans, in a stylised idiolect called nu shu – a language and a script used exclusively by women in on the secret.
Beautifully shot by Richard Wong in both time strands, Snow Flower works best in the historical sequences, largely because the dialogue is Chinese: both female leads use mostly English in the contemporary sequences, but with limited dramatic effect. They can both speak English well enough but they just can’t act in it properly. Even more strikingly, Sophia’s love interest Hugh Jackman (the Aussie cad Arthur) doesn’t just sing awfully in Cantonese, but he acts pretty badly in his native tongue too.
The end product is pretty laotong laotong – a same old, same old BFF chick flick, which the soporific music of Rachel Portman does little to elevate above the level of the ordinary.
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is on UK release now
Watch the trailer to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
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