Having helmed the feature film version of The Joy Luck Club, director Wayne Wang knows a thing or two about making sentimental Asian-flavored films for Western audiences. Like The Joy Luck Club, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an Oprah-approved, New York Times best-seller-based tale of female empowerment, grrl power, sistahood, mother-daughter relations, herstory, womyn’s issues, repressed lesbianism, whathaveyou.
On screen, it’s easy to pick out the elements that made the book such a popular read. Like The Notebook, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Possession and countless other Wednesday night book club novels, it’s a romantic mystery set in two time periods. There’s the modern one in which someone reads a diary or a series of letters that has great symbolic import to their life, and an old-timey one in which the diaries/letters come to life, show off all the author’s historical research and explicate an emotion-heavy mystery. Epistolary novels have a long tradition. Unfortunately, they rarely translate well to the movie screen. Watching someone read a letter is about as exciting as watching someone type on a computer screen. Wang’s slow, genteel method of storytelling doesn’t exactly tack on a lot of excitement either.
In SF&SF, our modern-day story takes place in Shanghai where Nina (Li Bing-Bing) and Sophia (Korean actress Gianna Jun) are BFFs who have fallen out of favor with one another for unexplained reasons. Nina is in the process of getting engaged and moving off to New York. Left out of the celebratory send-off is estranged gal pal Sophia, who promptly rides her bike into traffic and slips into a daytime TV-style coma. Overcome with guilt, Nina hovers over Sophia’s hospital bed and starts reading a manuscript that Sophia has conveniently left behind.
The manuscript leads us to our flashback story, the tale of Lily (Li again) and Snow Flower (Jun again), two young lasses in early 19th century China who are bound together as laotong. As the movie explains it, marriage was once nothing more than a business arrangement between families. Occasionally, though, women would enter into a sort of semiofficial contract to become laotong—the girlie equivalent of blood brothers. At one time, this was a big deal, involving notarized documents, social duties and a secret language all their own.
Back in 2011 Shanghai, Nina tries to figure out what went wrong in Sophia’s life and caused their lifelong, laotong-like friendship to sour—but mostly she gets distracted by reading the manuscript. The manuscript consists of secret letters written between Lily and Snow Flower (on paper fans) and details their intertwined lives of rich tragedy. Yay, symmetry! Yay, duality! As children, Lily and Snow Flower are subjected to the ancient Chinese tradition of foot binding. The idea is that the tinier a woman’s feet are, the more desirable—and therefore marriable—she is. Empirically speaking, it’s no wackier than admiring big boobs. In practice though, it’s pretty freakin’ barbaric. The film goes into great detail about foot binding and never passes up the opportunity to remind us that Snow Flower and Lily have freakishly tiny feet. But the cross-temporal analogies just don’t line up. Nina wearily kicking off a pair of designer high heels just doesn’t equate to Snow Flower having her body mutilated and sold off to the first pig butcher who wanders past her parents’ hut.
The main problem with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is that you couldn’t cut through the melodrama with a steak knife. The setting and the actors are all Asian, of course, but we’re only one Barbara Stanwyck away from a Douglas Sirk film here. And even Hollywood’s King of the Women's Pictures (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, There’s Always Tomorrow) would find much of the shenanigans on display in Snow Flower too over-the-top for his taste. Sentimental is one thing, mawkish is another.
Our gals enter into loveless marriages, get abused, lose children, experience war, endure typhoid epidemics, date Hugh Jackman. The list of exquisite tragedies is unending. It’s not the facts of the case that are in dispute. Life for women in 1800s China was certainly no picnic. But the film catalogues its woes with as much buildup as checking off a laundry list. Title cards indicating “One Year Later” or “Two Years Later” are about the only thing separating the unending disasters. The message is clear: Women are made to suffer and die and are saints for doing so. Clearly, Wang hopes to wring a lot of tears from this sob-sister story, but it’s just too rote to resonate.
The film has elements of quality spread thinly throughout. The modern-day cinematography is crisp. There are plenty of costuming and set details to ogle in the 1830s segments. Wang’s sincerity in relating this tale is never in doubt. But his actresses are hamstrung having to deliver most of their dialogue in English (for purely commercial reasons). And the script they’re working from is overflowing with far too many soap operatics for one film to realistically contain.