Remember Wayne Wang? That Wayne Wang who made the indie darlings Eat a Bowl of Tea and Life Is Cheap… But Toilet Paper Is Expensive. The success of those films served as a springboard into the hearts and minds of book clubs and talk shows everywhere with his 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. He solidified his reputation for ensemble pieces with the more male-centric Smoke and Blue in the Face films, before we lost that Wayne Wang somewhere in a sea of forgettable rom-coms like The Last Holiday and the J-Lo vehicle Maid in Manhattan. Really? Had it come to that?
So after a few years lost in the wilderness, Wang returns with another story about women spanning distinct cultures and generations. Based on the novel by Lisa See, the film juxtaposes parallel stories set in 19th century China and present day Shanghai. In the earlier time frame, two girls named Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bing Bing) are paired as laotong or “old sames”, a union that bonds them for life. As their lives move in different directions, they continue to communicate via their own language and writing on a secret fan. In the modern time frame, their descendants Sophia and Nina (played by the same actresses) strain to maintain their own laotong friendship by attempting to uncover the past.
With Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Wang falls back on the sisterly love motif that has served him so well in the past. It’s a good thing too, as he is quite adept at it. Richard Wong’s photography is lush and detailed, and the same could be said of the narrative. It is grand and interwoven with numerous strands of complex femininity, and this sometimes serves as far too complicated a construct for what is essentially a simple story of enduring friendship. Although the film takes itself incredibly seriously, and the bonds of friendship feel weighty, there is also a sense of joy behind the sorrows. Both of the leads perform in dual roles, skillfully navigating the emotional changes of four women over the course of two generations. A small and well crafted role from Hugh Jackman as a modern-day boyfriend gives a much-needed outsider’s perspective. Dealing with the often horrifying act of “foot-binding”, “secret women’s business” and the historic subjugation of women that those with a Y-chromosome may suffer guilt over, audiences would be wise to keep a box of tissues handy at all times.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was released in Australia on 15 September 2011 from Pinnacle.