In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Nina (Li Bingbing) is a Shanghai career girl who drops plans to move to New York when she learns her estranged bestie, Sophie (Gianna Jun), is in a coma. Soon Nina discovers the manuscript of a novel that Sophie had been writing, which turns their longterm friendship — cemented as teens dancing to contraband Faye Wong tapes and fractured by diverging adult choices like Sophie's ostentatious romance with Arthur (Hugh Jackman) — into the tale of the lifelong bond between two 19th-century Chinese women, Lily and Snow Flower (also played by Li and Jun).
In squeezing the raw material of Lisa See's 2005 period novel through a partly contemporary frame, director Wayne Wang adds a charge of relevance to a story otherwise hinged on the dated traumas of foot binding and arranged marriages, playing up China's rapid modernization while effectively suggesting that the secret rituals of female friendship transcend generations.
The constant cross-cutting between past and present draws attention to the production's inconsistencies. In the olden days, people apparently made a lot of declarative expository statements like "Now, the typhoid epidemic is upon us"; in the modern sections, the women speak in stilted English that's sometimes indecipherable. But when Wang very occasionally allows the two periods to merge, it's strangely provocative.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Angela Workman, Ronald Bass and Michael Ray, based on a novel by Lisa See. Starring Li Bingbing, Gianna Jun and Hugh Jackman.
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As the parallel friendships evolve over time, both push and pull between platonic and erotic; it's to the film's credit that it never definitively suggests that love can only be one or the other.