14 October 2011 | DICK STEEL
A Nutshell Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
There are a few reasons why I decided to watch Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and for starters it's an international film directed by Wayne Wang for a story set in both Old and Modern day China, with leads from Taiwan, Korea and Australia speaking in two languages and playing two characters from different timelines, exploring a strong friendship that existed and was sustained through secret letter exchange like penpals. While production values are strong in recreating an era already bygone, and not painting modern day Shanghai in too romantic overtones, the film somehow lacked a certain punch to really ring home its emotions, resulting in a rather featherweight film that turned out to be average despite its production arsenal.
Which is a pity since it's directed by Wayne Wang, based upon the novel by Lisa Lee, which tells of the friendship between Nina (Li Bingbing) and her good friend Sophia (Gianna Jun) who have both drifted apart, from their firm friendship forged since their teenage years, by the time we meet them in modern day Shanghai, with the former scheduled to go to New York to head a bank branch courtesy of an opportunity given by her CEO (Russell Wong), and the latter scheduled to go down south to Australia to follow her boyfriend Arthur (Hugh Jackman), a pub owner operating a chain in China. An accident befalls Sophia and in her state of unconsciousness, Nina begins to read up on Sophia's titular work, which is in a way is based on her ancestor, and in uncanny terms also seemed to mirror the relationship of Nina and Sophia.
So we flash back to 19th century China, where girls of various classes are subjected to bound feet - an excruciating process to keep one's feet under 3 inches in length, a symbol of female perfection that involves the crushing of bones and blister formation no thanks to tight cloth binding all toes tightly into the foot, and in a way force a very dainty sashay each time the woman has to walk, assisted most of the time. The so-called Three Inch Golden Lotus foot is much sought after by noblemen with foot fetishes, which means an automatic ticket out of poverty, a passport to a good life, but not always. Snow Flower (Gianna Jun again) and Lily (Li Bingbing in her second role) are born to different families of opposite fortunes, and being brought up by a matchmaker who made them "laotong", or a sworn sister equivalent, we see their different fortunes when they get matchmade off to different husbands, with Lily having the advantage for bearing the perfect feet.
It's a story about these strong, sisterhood bonds and their secret communication with each other through secret messages written in the Xu Nu script, which involves rhyming couplets, and are thought to girls who are brought up under this system, where they will have a sister and companion for life. In the olden days this seemed more like a lifelong support system where the girls would frequently visit each other and be each other's confidante, and the significance of these bonds were to be replicated by the modern girls of Nina and Sophia. On one hand the modern girls' take on this seemed to be more of a one-upmanship against the other in who loves (with slight lesbian undertones) who more, only for them to realize that it's about being in for the long haul, and that living up to those laotong vows isn't easy, with intentions easily misinterpreted, especially when it's deemed one party is taking pity on the other, be it work opportunities, romance or material wealth.
Wayne Wang lays the narrative out in a very flat structure, almost linear too despite the jumps back in time, since the events occurring in parallels between the two timelines cannot be more pronounced, akin to a story within a story within a story in its plot development. While it had the promise of exploring the ritual of feet binding, this is unfortunately not that film, with that behaviour being little more than a plot device rather than a potent plot point examining that ritual in more detail. And it does seem that the actresses were most of the time finding themselves balancing in extremely high heels to give the illusion of bound feet through their wobbly walk, and sometimes you may catch a moment or two when a heel gets spotted.
But what seemed more of a challenge, was the requirement to speak two languages. Li Bingbing was the best amongst the rest, being equally comfortable in English as she is in Mandarin. The decision to cast Gianna Jun is a mystery, since her character requires her to speak in English, which she does OK in, but Mandarin? Only the simple phrases were fine, but the out-of-sync mouth movement when lines of dialogue got more complex only seemed to irritate when someone else dubbed over her lines which I'm not surprised is spoken in English, or Korean even. Hugh Jackman too wanted to get into the act, and found himself singing an English version of a Chinese song, before belting it out in Mandarin himself, which got worst by each line of lyrics, but you do have to give the man full marks for effort, and not being embarrassed in severely butchering the language.
Still, this is a Wayne Wang film, and that should warrant a watch even if the story is quite ordinary and didn't do a deep dive, but boasting a cast that you'll probably won't see being combined in the same film anytime again soon.