Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in the end turns on love. Forget about the original book that helped to create this jewel of a movie. A movie is not a book. The visual, with long shots and close ups, the dialogue and the music, even the noises, take over all the written pages to express a single gesture. It tells the fictional story of two women, bound together since childhood as laotong, or old sames. The laotong relationship is a life- long relationship between women, often with similar birthdays, horoscopes, or other social or biological markers; and was often revered higher than a marriage.
They share their life experiences including the painful process of foot binding, mothers who push for good marriages, and the struggles that each encounter once they are married, even war comes to their area. There are many parallels in the two stories that show a bond between the two sets of girls and to capture this bond securely the two girls form centuries apart are played by the same actresses: Lily/Nina become the roles of Bing Bing Li and Snow Flower/Sophie are portrayed by Gianna Jun. The supporting cast is carefully chosen and uniformly fine. Nothing of a sexual nature is shown in this deep love between these Sisters-for-Life. The movie could have gone there, but didn’t, and I do not know if Laotong even encompasses this.
I was particularly interested in watching this movie because I know that one of the sites writers, Constantine, has lived in the orient and I was eager to see how it would be depicted. There is something that most Americans do not understand, and that is that oriental cultures have histories and deep-seated traditions that Americans have a difficult time imagining. Director Wayne Wang’s challenge is to intercut the centuries and women without confusing the audience, a virtue not always achieved in two hours of traversing between times. Also presented was a sub-story of the brutal Taiping rebellion which would have separated the sexes; outlawed foot binding, Buddhism, Confucianism and imposed Christianity. From the very start I was enchanted with this movie and it stayed with me until the very end.
The movie is clear enough to figure things out and some English is spoken, but I would loved to have known what was being said during the Chinese spoken portions. Li Bingbing was the best amongst the rest, being equally comfortable in English as she is in Mandarin. The decision to cast Gianna Jun is a mystery, since her character requires her to speak in English, which she does OK in, but Mandarin? Only the simple phrases were fine, but the out-of-sync mouth movement when lines of dialogue got more complex only seemed to irritate when someone else dubbed over her lines which I’m not surprised is spoken in English, or Korean even. Hugh Jackman too wanted to get into the act, and found himself singing an English version of a Chinese song, before belting it out in Mandarin himself. Those small wobbles aside this is Grade ‘A’ filmmaking.