Wayne Wang’s lushly melodramatic tale revolves around two sets of Chinese women in two different centuries, linked by the concept of “laotong,” a traditional bond between two unrelated young girls making them sisters for life.
As the present-day story begins, a confident Shanghai financial whiz named Nina (China’s Li Bingbing), who is about to be transferred to New York, arrives at the hospital bedside of her estranged, longtime friend Sophia (South Korea’s Gianna Jun), who lies comatose, the victim of an urban accident when a taxi hit her bicycle. During her vigil, Nina finds Sophia’s manuscript that tells the allegedly ancestral story of seven year-old girls, Lily and Snow Flower, joined by a ‘laotong.’ Pragmatic Lily (also played by Li) marries a wealthy, emotionally remote Hunan man, as fragile Snow Flower (also played by Jun) winds up as the wife of a coarse, abusive country butcher – and they exchange letters, secretly written in the folds of a white silk fan.
While Lisa See’s 2005 international best-seller concentrated on a lifetime of female friendship in 19th century China, screenwriters Angela Workman, Ron Bass and Michael K. Ray added the parallel contemporary story. Although Hong Kong-born Wayne Wang (“Chan Is Missing,” “Maid in Manhattan,” “The Joy Luck Club”) directs, the driving forces propelling this contrived, often disjointed story to the screen are producers Wendi Deng Murdoch and Florence Stein, who both have Chinese roots; they’re the wives of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and ex-MGM CEO Harry Sloan, respectively.
It’s easy to see why they were attracted to this melancholy tale of women’s repression in provincial, feudal China in1829, when toddlers’ tiny feet were tightly bound, forcing them, even as adults, to walk with small, halting steps. Indeed, Florence Stein’s production company is defiantly dubbed Big Feet. To lighten the cinematic misery, Hugh Jackman sings and dances in a cameo as Sophia’s nightclub-star boyfriend.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is a tear-jerking 5, a soap-opera’ish chick flick about love and loyalty.