Review: 'Snow Flower' loses life in modern shift

Updated: 2011-07-14 11:29


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There really should be a disclaimer somewhere, even in small print, explaining Hollywood's ill-advised tinkering on Lisa See's novel "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."

"Inspired by" at least would tip off See's readers that the film version is far from a genuine adaptation of her tale of friendship found and lost between two women enduring the cruel indifference, even abuse, laid on their sex in 19th century China.

"Remotely suggested by" would be closer to the truth, since director Wayne Wang's take on the story shifts the bulk of the action to modern Shanghai, with two contemporary women as stand-ins for See's characters.

The two women in both time periods are played by the same actresses, Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun, who often convey a deep sisterly bond despite the movie's clumsy lurches backward and forward in time.

See's saga of Snow Flower (Jun) and Lily (Bingbing) becomes secondary, almost a back-story to the movie's modern portion, in the screenplay credited to Angela Workman, Ron Bass and Michael K. Ray.

Bass was a screenwriter on Wang's far more successful adaptation, 1993's "The Joy Luck Club." And it would be cynical, though possibly accurate, to surmise that the contemporary portion of "Snow Flower" was fabricated to tap into the same audience that flocked to that earlier story of more modern Chinese women.

The trouble is that the modern story whipped up for "Snow Flower" isn't very compelling. Yet it dominates the movie, continually oozing back in just as the period drama is getting interesting. The fitful cutting between eras is distracting enough, but it's truly annoying to get yanked out of See's sumptuous, exotic world of barbaric foot-binding and ancient tradition, into Wang's amorphous wanderings through the China of today.

In present times, Bingbing plays rising businesswoman Nina, who's about to embark on a big move to New York when her girlhood best friend, Sophia (Jun), is put into a coma by a traffic accident.

Years earlier, the two pledged lifelong devotion as laotongs, or "old sames," a ritual of love and sorority inspired by the vow Sophia's ancestor Snow Flower and her laotong, Lily, took nearly 200 years earlier.

Nina and Sophia's story lumbers around from the 1990s to the present, juxtaposing the chaotic life and myriad choices available to women now with the rigid, cloistered existence Lily and Snow Flower must bear.

See's descriptions of the ancient practice of foot-binding — breaking of bones and molding of flesh to give young girls delicate feet and improve their marriage prospects — is preserved in one mildly nauseating scene.

Many of the customs See related are set forth in the film through awkward expository dialogue as the modern characters discuss bygone times. So rather than letting viewers react by immersing them in the actual practices, we get women of today talking about how things used to be.

The contemporary story allows for a weird appearance by Hugh Jackman in a small, rather inconsequential role. He does get to sing, and in Chinese at that, so maybe that was part of the appeal.

The modern additions to the story clearly appealed to first-time producer Wendi Murdoch, a native of China and wife of Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the movie's U.S. distributor.

Wang's a contemporary storyteller, not a period-piece sort of guy, so it's understandable why he might not want to take on a straight-ahead adaptation of "Snow Flower."

Yet See's fans likely would prefer a faithful period version — and that probably would have made for a better movie than this static exercise in literary revisionism.

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 for sexuality, violent/disturbing images and drug use. Running time: 104 minutes. Two stars out of four.


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