Beautifully Shot Snow Flower an Emotional Mess
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan doesn’t know what to make of itself. Starting in present day, drifting back to 1997, then to 1827, then floating between different points of history with wild abandon, director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers) tries his best to make some sort of sense out of author Lisa See’s beloved novel sadly not meeting with much in the way of success. It is a beautifully photographed emotional bore, and while certain images and moments spoke to me and brought a quiet tear to my eye on the whole the finished film itself did nothing for me.
Li Bingbing and Jun Gianna in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
© Fox Searchlight Pictures
The problem here must start with the script. See’s source material bends time, weaving in and out of different centuries with grace and precision. It tells its multilayered story of women, sisterhood, friendship and love in a way that is both intricate and intimate, going to places of strength, honesty and insight that are as refreshing as they are emotionally nuanced.
Watching the movie, I got the feeling that screenwriters Angela Workman (War Bride), Ron Bass (Rain Man) and Michael Ray (The Princess of Nebraska) had trouble coming up with the best way to approach the material. Their collective sense of time seems off, and what might have worked say in a two-part miniseries never quite comes together in a 120-minute motion picture. Too much is left unsaid, too much is taken for granted, so much transpiring off of the screen it becomes frustratingly difficult to gain a solid emotional connection to what is going on upon it.
What is transpiring? On one hand you have the story of one-time best friends Sophia (Jun Gianna) and Nina (Li Bingbing), the two once as close as sisters but now separated by a petty squabble that’s put an uncomforting distance between them. On the eve of when the latter is to head to New York for a prestigious new job, the latter is hit by a car and sent into a coma. When this happens Nina simply cannot abandon her friend, doing her best to piece together what has been going on with Sophia the proceeding six months while they’d been out of contact.
Mixed into this is both their story as teenage girls growing up as well as the saga of Snow Flower (Gianna) and Lily (Bingbing), two nineteenth century girls from opposite sides of the tracks who became bound together as laotong – sisters for life – by a kindly matchmaker and who see their futures spiral in unbelievably opposite directions. The idea is to transpose the modern story with the one from the past, showing how fate has linked the two women in ways that have spanned both space and time.
Problem is, none of this comes together in a satisfying way. Everything feels rushed, frenetic and not quite as well developed as I kept hoping it would be. There’s so much narrative shorthand no one gets the chance to develop their character as a wholly defined three-dimensional human being, and as hard as both actresses try neither manages to make a distinct impression no matter how hard they try.
There are moments where everything does come together and magic happens, Wang delivering a few visually poetic sequences that stopped my heart and got me to hold my breath in quiet awe. There are some touches that break through, connect and pack a wallop, delivering upon See’s themes in a way that held me seductively captive.
But these scenes are sadly few and way too far between. What’s more, Gianna and Bingbing just aren’t allowed the room to breathe and to grow, each one delivering their lines capably yet unable to put the kind of heft and weight behind the words in order to make them echo into the viewer’s subconscious. There are enigmas, ghost, each walking through their respective worlds and eras connected by nebulous sisterly tissues that are too indistinct and ethereal to easily grab hold of.
I almost want to give Snow Flower and the Secret Fan a pass just for the way it ends. As fractured and as incoherent and as emotionally aloof as the majority of the movie sadly proves to be, the last two images that Wang unleashes knocked me senseless. The film grows quiet, serene, allowing Nina’s p.o.v. to take center stage showing how she’s allowed these stories to enter inter her soul in a way that transverses centuries. The last image is wondrous, a divine coda hinting at the magnetic weight of what could have been had the filmmakers found a way to adapt the source material with more authority.
It’s not going to happen, though, for as good as those last scenes are they simply cannot make up for the lackadaisical disjointedness of the majority preceding them. Wang tries, and so does his cast, but See’s novel just isn’t served very well by this adaptation. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an intriguing enigma, and there’s plenty about it to applaud, sadly there just isn’t enough of it to make the final product worthy of a recommendation.
Film Rating: êê (out of 4)