Female friendship in old, new China
Call it Sisterhood of the Traveling Fan.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan takes Lisa See's novel of female friendship set in 19th-century imperial China and intercuts it with a twinned tale of girlfriends in contemporary Shanghai.
The connection between the two time frames and stories (the contemporary one with the addition of screenwriters) is flimsy as a frayed rope bridge, forced as the stepsister's foot into Cinderella's glass slipper.
Director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) takes this unwieldy script from Angela Workman, Ron Bass, and Michael Ray and makes it into a story of much visual grace and, sadly, considerable narrative awkwardness.
The ravishing actresses Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun play the two sets of girlfriends. In the 19th-century story they are tightly wound Lily and relaxed Snow Flower, who are introduced by a matchmaker as potential laotong (best friends).
In the contemporary story they are tightly wound Nina and morose Sophia, who meet as teenagers when Nina tutors Korean emigre Sophia in Mandarin. In both story lines, decorative fans inscribed on their folds with nu shu, a secret language shared by the women, connect the women over distance and centuries.
On the page, the relationship between Lily and Snow Flower, the central figures of See's original story, is one of sisterly affection laced with eroticism. On screen, this platonic intimacy and intensity looks like repressed sexual desire.
There are two movies here, and I don't mean the different time frames.
Ostensibly Snow Flower is about how, despite the practices of foot-binding and arranged marriage, Chinese women found strength and companionship in female friendship.
The more poignant movie that Wang has made is about how, despite the discontinuities in China because of the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and the Communist Revolution of a century later, there is a continuity of shared history and experience.
In the most poetic scenes of the film so evocatively shot by Richard Wong, the ghosts of Lily and Snow Flower materialize in modern-day Shanghai. At these moments Wang's film has a visual eloquence and resonance that transcend its clunky dialogue and the forced parallelism of its two timelines.