The filmmakers of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan are gambling on how much the audience cares about the central relationship between two Chinese women. It isn’t a question of length since this is a keen two hours. The gamble comes from the film thematically playing the same movie twice.
The main story is of Nina (Li Bingbing) and Sophie (Gianna Jun) set in modern day China. Nina was promoted and will be opening a new office in New York. Before she can leave, her old friend Sophie gets into a terrible accident leaving her in a coma. This causes Nina to figure out what her friend has been up to the past few months and to read her manuscript.
The novel is Sophie replicating their relationship in a more historical China. The actresses play both roles to decent effect. (It’s the same performances with different costumes.) Instead of offering Sophie’s side of the story, it’s just the story told again without any nuances. The dialog and setting of an older China makes their relationship more special and the movie obviously feels the same. The colors are more vibrant during this time with particular care towards the costumes and shot composition.
When it jumps back to modern day, everything feels bleak. It feels routine even though this story is the one set in the reality of the characters. Director Wayne Wong seems so bored by this part that out of nowhere Hugh Jackman suddenly shows up. In a Chinese film with Chinese actors talking about Chinese things, suddenly Sophie is dating an Australian businessman who has an entire scene where he gets to sing a song like he’s on a cruise. It was so bizarrely distracting I’m not sure who thought this was a good idea.
This movie is based off a popular book club book and upon further research I’m baffled. The book is only set in 19th century China. There is no modern story in the novel so…why add that in? All of the fascinating aspects of the movie are from the culture of the older time. The two take part in a laotong ceremony joining them as friendship sisters. (Well so do the modern duo but it can’t be as sincere without the legacy of tradition behind it.) There is the painful act of foot binding which only even applies in the past storyline.
With one storyline, this movie may have worked better. It’s hard to be emotional over the same beats over and over again. Instead it’s a movie that jumps around time in odd intervals without a cohesive feel to it. Also Hugh Jackman.