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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

August 16, 2011
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The orator in “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” urges us at one point to “work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.” That and dozens of other pieces of worthwhile advice come in a tidy, six-minute package of a song. Or you could get largely the same message spread out over two hours of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, an adaptation of Lisa See’s book of the same title that somehow didn’t go directly to the Lifetime network.

Nina (Li Bingbing) and Sophia (Jun Ji-hyun) are close friends in modern-day Shanghai. Or at least they were. Sophia moved with her father from Korea after her mother died, and her stepmother hired Nina on to help teach Sophia to speak Mandarin. Sophia’s aunt (Vivian Wu) told the girls about Sophia’s great-great-grandmother from Hunan, and about her laotong — her sworn sister.

This ancestor was Snow Flower (also Jun), and her laotong was Lily (also Li). They were born on the same day of the same month; Lily’s family was poor, but she had perfect bound feet, so the matchmaker would be able to arrange her marriage into a good house. But to swing the deal, she had to become laotong to Snow Flower, whose better-stationed family would improve her standing.

The film explains that while marriages were entered into for “men’s reasons”, laotong relationships were by choice, and for the “women’s reasons” of emotional support. And yet immediately we see a contradiction, as the matchmaker arranges this very lifelong relationship we have just been told is the antithesis of arranged marriages.

Be that as it may, the girls grow up together. Lily indeed marries well, while Snow Flower ends up matched with a pig farmer and butcher after her father smokes the entire family fortune in an opium pipe. Years go by in which we see disease and rebellion ravage these women’s separate fortunes. But through it all, they maintain an epistolary connection through inscriptions on a white silk fan passed back and forth between the two.

And yet as far as we can see, nothing good ever happens to them. Lily is well-off, yes, but at the cost of having a horribly indifferent man as a husband. Snow Flower has it worse, as her husband is actively abusive. There are no good-times-and-bad-times here, only bad-times-and-worse-times. And what keeps them going is an utter mystery; we’re told — as in explicitly, in words — it’s sisterly love, but no evidence or expression of this connection makes it to the screen.

All of this is intercut with the modern story of Nina and Sophia. We learn that they had a falling-out, but when Sophia is hit by a car, Nina finds herself called to Sophia’s hospital bed, even forsaking a massive promotion to work at her company’s new office in New York. She finds in Sophia’s satchel the draft of a novel about the lives of Snow Flower and Lily, which sets up the framing for the other story.

But of course there are parallels; Sophia even says at one point — in a near-term flashback — that her novel is “about the old days, but … really about us”. Here’s a free tip: if you have to make your characters say that out loud, you aren’t doing your job as a screenwriter. Still, it’s pretty much par for the course as far as the dialogue goes, and the parallelism is clunky and ham-fisted for the most part. I thought that See must have handled this better in the book, or it would never have received such acclaim.

Well, as it turns out she didn’t; the whole modern story is entirely the ill-conceived idea of screenwriters Angela Workman, Ronald Bass, and Michael K. Ray. The erratic pacing and the stilted, purple prose can likely be laid at their feet as well. Director Wayne Wong tries hard to recapture what he managed with The Joy Luck Club, but there’s just not enough for him to work with after the adaptation has had its way with what was by all accounts an excellent novel.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: it passes, but barely; some conversations are not about the women’s relationships with men, but the vast majority are.

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