Starring: Gianna Jun, Bingbing Li, Vivian Wu
Directed by: Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”)
Written by: Angela Workman (“The War Bride”) and Ron Bass (“Amelia”)
In any culture, a lifelong and close friendship can be difficult to maintain. Throw in cultural and class restrictions and it makes things even more difficult. In the incredibly disjointed “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” American audiences are given a crash course on an ancient tradition involving unbreakable bonds between females in China. While the storytelling style is ambitious, a number of elements prevent the viewer from truly connecting with this narrative of lifelong friendship.
In present day Shanghai, a troubled woman named Sophia (Gianna Jun) slips into a coma after a terrible traffic accident. With her friend Nina (Bingbing Li) by her side, the audience learns that the two women are bonded together for life as sworn sisters. In order to tell the story of this eventually strained friendship, director Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”) gives the audience a lesson in Chinese culture and explains the concept of “laotong” (sworn sisters). To do this, Wang employs a parallel story involving the girls’ ancestors, Snow Flower and Lily, who are forced to write secret messages in fans to keep their forbidden friendship alive.
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” features its lead actresses in dual roles, playing both their present day and ancestral versions of their characters. While an ambitious decision, the actresses are average in their performances and lack the chemistry needed to convey their lasting bond. Hugh Jackman, the movie’s only universally recognizable actor, momentarily takes the audience out of the film with a jarring and strange cameo that distracts from the elements of Chinese culture and setting.
In an apparent attempt to make the film more accessible to American audiences, Wang makes frequent use of English dialogue in addition to the native Chinese. The seemingly random appearances of English become particularly confusing when set against scenes with numerous visual cues to modern-day Beijing. Leaving the dialogue either completely in Chinese or completely in English would have been far more preferable.
The biggest problem that “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” faces is its pacing. The film tries to emphasize the lasting nature of these friendships by jumping between its two timelines, but its failure to strike a balance between the past and present makes it hard to find emotional impact. The viewer is pulled back and forth without allowing any one story element to develop and connect. The disconnected structure also often spends too much time away from the more compelling present day story. By the time the viewer is returned to it, it has become less engaging.
Ultimately, Wang’s insistence on giving the audience lessons in culture comes at the expense of connecting to the viewer on a deeper level. And for a film with the intention of tugging at heartstrings, it is a glaring oversight.