Directed by: Wayne Wang
Starring: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Vivian Wu, Wu Jiang, Russell Wong
Every so often a movie comes along that makes you wonder whether or not other people are actually watching the same movie you are. Such is the case with Wayne Wang’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, perhaps the most critically savaged “serious film” of the year. Maybe the fact that I went into it with low expectations played a role in all this, but damned if I can see why or how the film deserves all this scorn. I liked the film. Yes, it’s on the slow side, but no other pace would suit the material. I suppose there are some who are merely cheesed over the fact that the film adds a parallel contemporary story to the source novel. I guess that’s fair, but then I’ve no vested interest in the book and I suspect I’d find the whole thing a tough slog without that parallel story.
The movie is structured, as noted, in two parts. There’s the story of Nina (Bingbing Li) and Sophia (Gianna Jun) in modern Shanghai and the story of Lily (also played by Li) and Snow Flower (played by Jun) in China in the 19th century. The film starts with Nina on the brink of getting a dream job in New York City, but she’s brought up short when her oldest—albeit currently estranged—friend Sophia is badly injured when a car crashes into her bicycle. While going through her things at the hospital, Nina finds the manuscript of a book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which relates the story of the lowly born Lily and the high-born Snow Flower, who are brought together at seven as “laotung” (old sames), which binds them for eternity—and allows them communicate through the secret language of “nu shu,” which they write in the folds of a silk fan.
As the film intercuts between the two time periods—and back and forth within the modern story—we find the stories form curious parallels that work better in some cases than others. Perhaps the thing that most jars is the parallel between Snow Flower and her marriage to a coarse butcher (Wu Jiang) and Sophia’s involvement with a westerner, Arthur (Hugh Jackman). It may be mostly that having Hugh Jackman pop up late in the film is a needless distraction, but it also has something to do with the fact that the butcher’s character is developed and Arthur’s isn’t really.
What makes the film compelling to me—apart from the interesting and sometimes appalling details of life in 19th century China—is the story’s careful ambivalence about the boundaries of platonic friendship and physical romance, and even if such a boundary truly exists at all. In this regard, the film is considerably more than the stories it tells. This is not a great film. It is, however, sometimes a very good one, and it’s always a joy to behold in visual terms. But more than that, it’s much better than it’s been given credit for. I don’t know how it performed this weekend, but my guess is that the low critical ratings made it pretty much dead on arrival. I will be pleasantly surprised if it makes it to a second week. With that in mind, anyone interested in seeing it should lose no time in getting to The Carolina to catch it. Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence/disturbing images and drug use.