Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (PG-13)
1 1/2 stars out of 4
For the better part of the last two decades, Chinese director Wayne Wang has been bouncing back and forth between American art-house (“Smoke,” “Blue in the Face”) and American mainstream (“Because of Winn-Dixie,” “Maid in Manhattan”) while waiting for a worthy bookend to his masterpiece “The Joy Luck Club.” After watching “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” it’s clear Wang’s waiting will have to continue.
Like “Joy Luck,” “Snow Flower” is based on a best-selling novel by an Asian-American female and falls squarely into the art-house/chick-flick genre. However unlike Amy Tan’s “Joy Luck Club” Wang’s three screenwriters took Lisa See’s book — set completely in 19th century Hunan province — and added a second parallel story set in 21st century Shanghai. If there was ever a reason for fans of a novel to revolt over a screen adaptation this movie provides it.
In addition to unnecessarily padding the story, Wang cast his two leads to play dual roles. Having the women pull double duty makes it easier to follow the overly fussy, back-and-forth narrative but also comes off like a cheesy gimmick. The same can be said for the late arrival of Hugh Jackman playing a tacked-on character added solely to boost what will surely be an anemic box office take.
Everything interesting in the film takes place in the Hunan sequences which are impeccably designed and photographed. During this time in China — and the rest of the world for that matter — marriages were arranged not long after children were born and the story goes into not quite enough detail covering three behind-the-scenes Chinese customs.
The first of these is the now thankfully defunct practice of foot-binding. Ostensibly this was done to force female feet to look smaller and daintier. In reality, it was done to make women walk slower and appear subservient. It effectively folded the foot in two width-wise, pushed the arch up and pressed the ball and heel together. It’s not quite as brutally pathetic and barbaric as female circumcision but its close.
The most intriguing facet of See’s novel and the film is her fictional “laotong.” Again instituted by parents and sometimes a paid consultant, laotong pairs girls together based on time of birth; the closer the better. The two leads were born on the same day, making theirs an ideal pairing. To put it simpler terms, laotong was the original “BFF” arrangement, only one that was put into writing and lifelong.
As the laotong members grow older, with distance and other factors separating them, they would write messages to each other in Nushu on fans. Nushu is an unspoken language consisting entirely of symbols understood only by laotongs. Mixing these real and made-up components is a storytelling masterstroke by See but only halfway makes sense in the film.
What would really be interesting is to take See’s novel and give it a “Clueless” overhaul. Based on Jane Austen’s novel “Emma,” “Clueless” took the framework of a rather stuffy and dated story, made it hip and audience friendly. It also turned out to be a very good movie.
Take the laotong and Nushu elements, replace the feet-binding with generic plastic surgery and switch out the fans with texting. It might not be great but it would certainly be more marketable and appealing to American women than this yawner. (Fox Searchlight)