Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Release date: July 15, 2011
Director: Wayne Wang
Novel by: Lisa See
Screenplay by: Angela Workman, Ronald Bass, Michael Ray
Cast: Li Bingbing, Gianna Jun, Vivian Wu, Hu Qin Yun, Ruijia Zhang, Shi Ping Cao, Russell Wong, Archie Kao, Huhg Jackman
We all kinda love Gianna Jun, whom we’ve all generally met when she played the slightly off-her-rocker girl in one of the most famous South Korean romantic dramedies, My Sassy Girl. But her casting in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan makes little sense and throws the film on its head.
The film tells the story of two lifelong friends, Nina (Li) and Sophia (Jun), who become English-speaking friends in school and made a formal, but rather symbolic, arrangement to become each other’s laotong — kindred spirits through a formal contract.
On the night that Nina is offered an important gig in New York at the company where she works, she gets a call from the hospital telling her that Sophia has had an accident that has left her in a coma. Both friends have been separated for a number of years, and no one seems to know the details of Sophia’s life. Soon Nina finds out that Sophia had been writing the story of Snow Flower (also played by Jun) and Lily (also played by Li) — two laotong in 19th century China — a story which mirrors the complicated relationship between Nina and Sophia.
Though Wayne Wang’s structure of his adaptation of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is all over the place and one needs to get used to seeing Li Bingbing as not only Lily and Nina, but also as teen Nina — which I found fascinating — the film’s biggest problem was the constant language switch — part of the dialog in present-day Shanghai was in Mandarin, but the rest was in English. It’d be safe to say that all dialog could have been in Mandarin and maybe Hunan dialects… and maybe, just maybe, English dialog when dealing with Nina’s business at the company.
Another question is why was Gianna Jun considered for the role? Due to the limitations in language, dialog in English seemed sluggish and quite distracting compared to the dialog in Mandarin, which could have been used in all of the film if the production had cast a Mandarin-speaking lead. Their explanation of making Jun Korean still makes very little sense, considering Sophia Liao’s father was supposed to be Korean.
Having said that, I did enjoy the 19th Century scenes. I haven’t read the book, so can’t be a purist. However, it seems like the book’s structure should’ve been left alone in order to explore more about the characters and the society of the time instead of jumping from time period to time period. We know Wayne Wang had been able to pull of jumping timelines and storylines in The Joy Luck Club, which was also written by Bass but also had author Amy Tan on board, so I’m inclined to think that Lisa See should have been more protective with her material.
In the end, the concept of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan never leaves the textual description of laotong to allow its characters to come alive, despite trying hard to sell us the images of Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun as representations of both their characters. That final realization that one has become a burden to the other is sad, but never becomes as deeply affecting as it should be.