Lisa See has done it again. And depending on your taste for the sentimental, this could be delightful or torturous.
Snowflower and the Secret Fan — adapted from See's novel — is the story of four women: Snowflower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Bingbing Li) live in 19th-century China; Sophia and Nina (also played by Jun and Li) live in present-day Shanghai.
Director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) wastes no time getting into the thick of the melodrama. Sophia falls into a coma after a nasty cycling accident and the tragedy brings her recent falling-out with lifelong friend Nina to the fore. From there, we are led through the development of Nina and Sophia's relationship, braided with the similarly fraught story of Snowflower and Lily.
The double casting of Jun and Li links the stories from past and present. "It's about the old days," says Sophia about the Snowflower and Lily saga, "but I think it's really about us." After simultaneous foot binding ceremonies, Snowflower and Lily are matched up as laotong, symbolic sisters united for eternity. In perfect symmetry, Nina and Sophia are also determined to be laotong and share this sacred bond, which even comes with its own secret language, nushu or "women's script." Snowflower and Lily pass news of their tumultuous lives, written between the folds of a traditional Chinese fan.
Both laotong pairs experience a range of joys and sorrows together. Marriage, pregnancy, death, and divorce are set against the backdrop of their undying affection, butting up against one another with the cumulative effect of a Lifetime movie. Foot binding, ever-present throughout the film, is never engaged in a meaningful way. Instead, it's hung out as a grim ornament lending more empty drama to the story.
The bond of laotong is also strangely off-putting. It comes across as an overly possessive friendship. It transcends marriage. Biological sisterhood has the gravitas of pen pals by comparison.
But it also works perfectly within the schema of See's mawkish pseudo-feminist best-sellers. Without much of interest or substance to back up these lifelong friendships, the women are more in love with the idea of sisterhood than anything else. Their laotong bond becomes an exercise in developing hyper-significant relationships. Predictably, their friendship only falters for all-too-perfect reasons — when one of the women selflessly lets go as she feels she is too much of a burden on her sister.
The film is nicely shot, with two cleanly interwoven storylines, and is by no means difficult to look at. And while See's romanticized indulgence in the ultra-feminine is tiresome, her track record of best-sellers is impressive.
Snowflower was manufactured to jerk the tears out of you, and, evidently, enough people are looking for a good reason to cry these days. If you like doing your crying in the dark and you aren't too picky about the plot, I've got a movie ticket to sell you.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Opening Friday, August 5th