Women’s work may never be done, but in Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Lisa See’s novel, their misery is even more persistent. “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is essentially a story—or conjoined stories—about how women can overcome the oppression they’ve suffered in past societies and must still endure today by developing strong bonds among themselves—a support sisterhood of sorts (represented by the phrases written on the titular fan). That’s a nice message, although one with sudsy overtones. But in Wang’s treatment it’s conveyed in such a clumsy, heavy-handed fashion that it invites derision rather than empathy.
Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun play Nina and Sophia, Singapore girls who secretly become modern-day laotong, or lifetime ‘sisters,’ during their schooldays, despite the opposition of Sophia’s traditionalist stepmother (Hu Qing Yun). The screenplay introduces them late in their relationship, after they’ve become estranged; just after being offered a job in the States, Nina’s called to Sophia’s beside in the hospital after a near-fatal bicycle accident that brings her protective side back to the fore.
That begins the contemporary half of the story, which follows the girls in flashback from their early friendship, during which Nina goes so far as to take a school examination for Sophia that damages her own educational prospects. But Sophia’s growing unhappiness with Nina’s maternal instinct—along with an attachment to an Australian singer (Hugh Jackman) that Nina disapproves of—gradually leads to a rift that encourages Nina to take the job offer in New York.
Nina and Sophia’s story is intercut with that of Lily (Bingbing) and Snow Flower (Jun), unlikely laotong in the early nineteenth century. The beautiful Lily becomes the subservient wife of a well-to-do nobleman, while Snow Flower weds a gruff butcher (Jiang Wu). When Lily’s domineering mother-in-law (Hu Jingyn) forbids her to have anything to do with her ‘sister,’ Snow Flower takes steps to distance herself in order not to cause trouble Eventually, however, tragedy brings the two women together again in the end, just as Sophia’s accident does in the present.
This juxtaposition of similar narratives from different centuries would be a crude device under any circumstances, but the filmmakers make it far worse than it need be in a couple of ways. First, they lard the script with crude metaphors and bludgeon the viewer with the central message over and over again. A favorite image in the nineteenth-century story, for example, is that of the bound feet that Chinese women of the time had to endure. And the central feature of both wealthy Lily and impoverished Snow Flower’s lives is their absolute subservience to their husbands and their child-bearing (or more properly son-bearing) responsibilities. In the modern narrative, those concerns are reflected in the my-way-or-the-highway shrieking of Sophia’s stepmother, who even after the girl’s in a coma treats her with disdain—and by the connection drawn between the two plot threads through Sophia’s writing up of the Lily-Snow Flower story (Nina, of course, tracks down the manuscript).
But the even more fundamental problem is the picture’s structure, accentuated by the central narrative division. The picture lurches forward from episode to episode, stumbling from one sudden death to another and even blithely using historical events to push matters ahead through a sort of dumb shorthand that will be mystifying to many viewers. (At one point, a reunion between Lily and Snow Flower is interrupted by people shouting that “the Taiping rebels are here,” followed by an amusingly small-scaled exodus from town and yet another death, this time in a snowfall that’s one of the film’s few visually enticing moments.)
If the materials are ramshackle, the execution is no better. Wang’s direction veers from perfunctory to overbearing, and he elicits performances that from the most charitable perspective one would call inadequate. Both Jun and Bingbing come across as amateurish, especially in the modern scenes that they’ve compelled to play largely in English; they seem to be reciting many of the lines phonetically, and the dubbing is often poor. (The period scenes are better, but they’re hobbled by a physical production that’s confined by a limited budget.) The supporting cast is undistinguished except for those, like Hu, who overact badly; even Jackson fails to bring much pizzazz to the part of the shark-like Aussie songsmith. With a few exceptions (like the snow scene), Richard Wong’s cinematography is equally unremarkable, and Deirdre Slevin’s editing fails to provide any real rhythm to the chronological switches. Rachel Portman’s background score, moreover, is one of her most obvious efforts.
“Snow Flower” might appeal to the female audiences who embraced fare like “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” But however attractive its message may be to some, the film is just a maudlin, meandering soap opera that traverses nearly two hundred years bluntly—and boringly—making the same obvious point over and over again.