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Like The Joy Luck Club, a film to which his latest film will no doubt be compared, Wayne Wang’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan enters the world of women with complete openness to its sensory sights and sounds, its codes of behavior, secrets of the heart and sturdiness of the soul. It does this through parallel stories, one set in contemporary Shanghai and the other taking place in 19th century Hunan province in central China. Sometimes the switches in time and use of the same two actresses playing roles a century-and-a-half apart are awkward. But so strong are the emotions — and, yes, the melodrama — that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan represents one of Wang’s best films to date.
Brought to the North American market with little fanfare or budget, no stars known outside of Asia (except brief scenes with Hugh Jackman) and without a build-up of laurels and reviews from prestigious festivals, the film will have to fight to survive in art houses, which can be tougher than mainstream cinemas. But the quality of the filmmaking and acting along with word of mouth just might bring Fox Searchlight a modest success. Certainly women will embrace this one.
The film could also attract attention, and one hopes not too negative due to the current travails of News Corp. in the U.K., as its producers are Wendi Murdoch and Florence Sloan, the wives of media magnate Rupert Murdoch and ex-MGM CEO Harry Sloan, respectively.
Angela Workman, Ron Bass and Michael K. Ray’s screenplay is based partially on Lisa See’s 2005 novel about a lifetime female friendship in 19th century China. Wang and his producers smartly saw the need to bracket this story with a contemporary one, which goes a long way toward illustrating the changing roles of women in Chinese society.
The film begins by introducing the concept of “laotong,” a contractual arrangement between women, even from different classes as is the case here, that makes them sworn sisters for life. The parallel stories each concern laotong.
In present day Shanghai, Nina (Li Bingbing) is summoned by a hospital to the bedside of Sophia (Korean actress Gianna Jun), her laotong from whom she has been estranged. Sophia lies in a coma, the victim of a traffic accident. Nina discovers the manuscript of a story Sophia is writing about a female ancestor. She immerses herself in the manuscript and this, of course, provides the story of Snow Flower (Jun) and Lily (Li), two little girls who pledge themselves to each other in 1829. Sophia is, of course, writing about herself and Nina.
Everything about the period story speaks to women’s oppression in the near feudal society of provincial China. Girls’ feet are bound from the time they are toddlers. This torture — the women are shown walking with delicate, halting steps even as adults — results in “beautiful” tiny feet that will supposedly secure prosperous husbands. (Please notice that Florence Sloan’s production company is called Big Feet.) Arranged marriages, spousal abuse and little status within the husband’s family complete a bleak picture.
The contemporary Shanghai women are seen as cosmopolitan English-speakers rising to the top of corporations and having their choice of men. But in how Wang portrays them and even frames them in certain scenes, they seem every bit as lonely and lost as their ancestors. Wang seems to be suggesting that, as in the west, things have changed dramatically as far as women are concerned but in other respects things don’t change at all.
With so much cultural, historical and sociological material to cover along with the arcs of two sets of female characters, the film often seems like a progression of talky scenes that must fulfill any number of obligations. Consequently, Snow Flower doesn’t hit its stride until the second act and many scenes appear directed more toward western audiences needing education in Chinese history and customs.
The portrait of men in both time periods is uninviting and superficial; indeed little has gone into bringing to life any of the supporting roles. Fortunately, Wang remains one of the world’s best male directors of women. His camera is incapable of not discovering beauty and wisdom in women’s faces. He sees every flaw, yet also sees the heart that accounts for the mistakes and unbridled passions.
Li, luminescent in both periods, is always the concerned, self-sacrificing sister who worries herself to death over her laotong. And Jun, who took a crash course in Mandarin to play this role (and whose Korean accent is accounted for in the storyline), beautifully conveys the sister who must deliberately “disappoint” her laotong in order to free them both, at least temporarily, from their mutual obligations. This film sets up each to become international name actresses.
The heart of the movie is about female loyalty and love that know no bounds. Aiding and abetting Wang in this is the radiant cinematography of Richard Wong, the just-so perfection in Man Lim Chung’s production and costume designs and the melodious, melancholy musical score of Rachel Portman.
Opens: July 15 (Fox Searchlight)
Production Companies: Fox Searchlight in association with IDG China Media Limited presents a Big Feet production
Cast: Gianna Jun, Li Bing Bing, Hugh Jackman, Vivian Wu, Jiang Wu, Russell Wong, Coco Chiang, Jingyun Hu, Archie Kao
Director: Wayne Wang
Screenwriters: Angela Workman, Ron Bass, Michael K. Ray
Based on the novel by: Lisa See
Producers: Wendi Murdoch, Florence Sloan
Executive producers: Hugo Shong, Ron Bass
Director of photography: Richard Wong
Production and costume designer: Man Lim Chung
Music: Rachel Portman
Editor: Deirdre Slevin
PG-13 rating, 104 minutes
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