Review: Snow Flower And The Secret Fan
While the novel version focuses solely on the story of two friends, Lily and Snow Flower, in 19th century Hunan province, the film splits its time between the historical world of Snow Flower, and a parallel friendship between Nina (Bingbing Li) and Sophia (Gianna Jun) in modern day Shanghai.
The story opens with Sophia getting into a bicycle accident with a car and ending up in a coma. Nina rushes to her side and we enter the first of many flashbacks, showing the two girls growing up together and cementing a close friendship called a ‘laotong’.
The plot moves forward and backward through time, but for the most part remains in the present day up until Nina discovers an unpublished manuscript Sophia had been writing, telling the story of Snow Flower and Lily.
This is where the film truly finds its footing, flashing back to the richly colored world of the 1800’s, where young girls’ feet are broken and bound in order to reach the desired 3 inch length. The rich costuming, stunning vistas, and vivid world are far more intriguing than anything modern Shanghai can offer.
That said, the whole point of a laotong relationship is that it transcends a single life, lasting '10,000 years,’ and as such, Nina and Sophia are simply echoes of the friendship of their foremothers. Their lives share rough parallels with those of Snow Flower and Lily (and are played by the same actors), with the girls experiencing a fallout and subsequent estrangement.
The physical presence of the fans from Sophia’s ancestors connect the past to the present, but it is clear that the two continue to overlap. Nina imagines the characters of Lily’s world appearing in Shanghai, usually signaling a full flashback to Snow Flower’s era.
But recent history plays an important role too, and Shanghai works not just as a backdrop, but as a kind of metaphor for the unrelenting march of time. Old houses are torn down to make way for skyscrapers. Sophia haunts her father’s old bathhouse, going so far as to cross-dress in order to gain access.
Unlike their ancestors, Nina and Sophia’s friendship is not formed with the explicit purpose of allowing them emotional intimacy with someone other than a husband. Both Snow Flower and Lily suffer under their husbands, as the primary role of marriage is not love, but described as simply ‘to have sons.’
Without this framework, the necessity of a laotong pairing is diminished in the modern era, but not lost. In the time Sophia had been absent from Nina’s life, she had been in a relationship with an Australian lounge singer (Hugh Jackman), which doesn’t work out for her, but provides an excellent moment of levity for the audience as Jackman performs an entire number, half of which is in Chinese.
The language barrier proved to be an awkward hurdle for the film, with most of it in Mandarin, but other moments inexplicably in English. The multilingual script may have succeeded in preventing this from being classified entirely as a foreign film, but artistically it would have been much stronger had the characters been allowed to simply speak in their native tongues.
Though at times the film’s storyline feels unbalanced, and much of the exquisite poetry of See’s novel is ignored, it succeeds in getting at the heart of what it means to be human, both then and now, and the power and importance of nurturing friendship with those closest to your heart.
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