The book club gals are either going to love this movie or hate it. The rest of us will simply utter a big collective “Meh.”
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is an ever-so-tasteful, watered-down and unnecessarily-improved-upon adaptation of Lisa See’s bestselling 2005 novel of the same name. The novel, a favorite with book club groups, was set in 19th-century China and told the story of two women, Lily and Snow Flower, who, though unrelated, were paired together as “laotong,” or sisters, from childhood on.
The novel’s allure was that it introduced western readers to, and drew them deeply into, a distant culture and time when friendship was the one bright spot in these women’s difficult lives.
Being a woman in China in the 1800s meant having one’s feet tightly bound, one’s marriage arranged and little control or say regarding one’s own life. Over the years, the fortunes of the two women in the novel -- one marries up and the other down --become a study in contrasts.
They spend years apart, communicating only via notes written on a fan, and yet their friendship and sisterly love endures despite distance and misunderstandings.
The film version isn’t content to leave well enough alone. It gives us Lily and Snow Flower, but it also grafts on -- apparently for viewers too antsy to sit through a period piece -- a parallel, contemporary story. This one is set in modern-day Shanghai and features Nina and Sophia, two women who were girlhood friends but who have drifted apart as young adults.
When Sophia, after an accident, lies in a coma, a grief-stricken Nina comes to understand the importance of their friendship as she reads the manuscript of a novel Sophia has written telling Lily and Snow Flower’s story (Snow Flower is a distant forebear of Sophia’s).
Like a ping-pong game, the movie keeps switching back and forth between its two eras and two pairs of women. In each time period, the same actresses appear, with Li Bing Bing, who is Chinese, playing Lily and Nina, and Gianna Jun, who is actually South Korean (and is billed in Korean movies as Ji-hyun Jun), portraying Snow Flower and Sophia.
The trouble is that it’s all tell and very little show. The characters narrate what has happened and exchange notes about their lives but we rarely see them actually interacting or doing much of interest. (Of course, it doesn’t help that Sophia is in a coma, leaving Nina to stand around looking stricken or moping.)
What is left to hold one’s interest are handsome sets and ornate costumes and hairstyles, particularly in the olden days segments.
Then there’s the problem of just what this oh-so-tasteful movie is trying to say about the nature of these intense female friendships. There’s more than a hint of a lesbian subtext, conveyed via lots of yearning looks, especially on Nina’s part in the present day story.
But the film, as directed by Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”), is too darned restrained and elliptical to actually go there, so it all ends up feeling like a vaguely titillating tease. Anyone expecting what Howard Stern calls girl-on-girl action is going to be disappointed.
What “Snow Flower” does having going for it is the chance-- likely your only chance -- to hear Hugh Jackman sing in Mandarin. He pops up briefly as a possibly shady Aussie businessman in Shanghai who is Sophia’s beau. In one of his three short scenes, he croons to Sophia in Mandarin while wooing her at a nightclub he owns. While Jackman’s fans may have been longing for him to make a musical, this sure isn’t it.
(From the Ain’t Marriage Grand Dept.: Wendi Murdoch, the Chinese-born, Yale MBA degree-holding wife of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, is one of the movie’s two main producers. “Snow Flower” is being distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the art house arm of the Twentieth Century Fox film company, which is -- wait for it -- owned by News Corp.)