Sisters are doing it for themselves across continents and centuries in "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," a tony and occasionally weepy celebration of female friendship that would be more at home on the Lifetime or Oprah networks, where the target audience won't regret it didn't buy a ticket to "Bridesmaids" instead.
Adapted from a best-selling novel by Lisa See, the film remains hopelessly inert even as it hops between modern, trendy Shanghai and rural 19th-century Hunan to follow a pair of "sworn sisters for life," or laotong, who provide each other the "companionship, understanding (and) happiness" that are hard to find in their more fraught, less equitable transactions with men. Says a Hunan matron, warning the girls to be meek, industrious and faithful wives: "Disobedience is a woman's greatest sin."
In 19th-century China, seven year old girls Snow Flower and Lily are matched as laotong - or "old sames" - bound together for eternity. Isolated ...
Rating: PG-13 for sexuality, violence/disturbing images and drug use
Length: 120 minutes
Released: July 15, 2011 Limited
Cast: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Vivian Wu, Hugh Jackman, Archie Kao
Director: Wayne Wang
Writer: Angela Workman
The women are played by the same pair of actresses in both centuries. Li Bingbing stars as the present-day Nina, a successful Shanghai businesswoman who enjoys pop music and oily buns (that's a culinary reference); she's also the olden-days Lily, who is chosen for marriage by a rich lord because of her tiny feet ("true golden lillies"), the result of the painful foot-binding process that is one of the film's metaphors for the male squashing of womanly hope and happiness. ("Only through pain will you find beauty," Lily's mother tells her.)
Gianna Jun plays the second woman. In Hunan, she is Snow Flower, married to a brutish butcher, while in the present she is Sophia, the comatose ex-girlfriend of an Aussie nightclub entrepreneur played by Hugh Jackman, who gets to belt out a tune, as if he were still on Broadway in "The Boy from Oz." Before her accident, Sophia was writing a novel about the past, called (what else?) "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." The book is about "laotong in the old days, but I think it's really about us," says Sophia, redundantly.
In fact, the movie has a weird habit of explaining every symbol that occurs, as if it were enhanced with some sort of audio pop-up CliffsNotes. When Nina enters an art gallery, we see a big canvas that reads "NEVER BIND." An opening speech takes place in a room decorated with mounted butterflies — a fact the speaker points out when he discusses "transformation." And that's the trouble with the film: The women never come alive as characters, but instead function as symbols of love and bravery.
"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" was directed by Wayne Wang, probably because he also helmed the similarly mainstream/ethnic "The Joy Luck Club." At the start of his career, Wang was a distinctive presence and a groundbreaking Chinese-American director, recognized for such essential indies as "Chan Is Missing." Now, he's probably best known for such unrisky projects as "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "Maid in Manhattan."
"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is at Malco's Ridgeway Four.