Lisa See's 2005 novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, is a work of historical fiction, a journey through the 19th century featuring two friends from different social castes. They are bound together by laotong, a kind of personal contract that is more powerful than the vows of the arranged marriages each will take years later.
The film of the same name covers that territory, but adds a new twist that will unnerve some viewers: Instead of focusing on the relationship between the two friends, Lily and Snow Flower, director Wayne Wang also presents contemporary versions of the characters: longtime friends Nina (Li Bingbing) and Sophia (Gianna Jun).
While it is admittedly interesting to see a more-capitalistic, westernized Shanghai as a counterpoint to the traditions of the 200-year-old subplot, it is no more interesting than it would be to see those same 19th-century traditions presented in more detail. Wang shoots right down the middle, which doesn't help either story.
The modern story begins in the mid-1990s, when Nina and Sophia first learn of the laotong relationship, and agree to their own. In essence, it's a bond of sisterhood that is intended to survive virtually everything. Slowly, however, Nina and Sophia begin to drift apart once they become adults. Nina is expected to move to New York for business, and Sophia and her boyfriend (a derailing Hollywood cameo) are heading to Australia.
Along the way, however, Sophia is involved in an accident that leaves her in a coma. Nina collects her friend's personal effects at the hospital, which includes a novel she's been working on. That novel, conveniently enough, is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. As Nina begins to read the book, she realizes—gasp!—that many of these same scenarios fit herself and Sophia.
In reality, that's a very shallow conclusion for Nina (and the film) to draw. Outside of one girl being rich and one girl being poor, there's almost nothing that connects these two stories other than the filmmakers wanting them to connect.
In the 19th-century narrative, Lily has married well, a byproduct of good foot-binding. Bound feet were common, if not expected, of Chinese women for nearly 1,000 years, and it's not the only grotesquerie they faced simply for being women. Perfectly bound feet were considered unbelievably attractive. She was in a loveless marriage—captured, in a sense—and useless unless she produced a male heir. Meanwhile, Snow Flower was forced into marriage with a butcher, and spent her life living in squalor.
Conversely, Nina and Sophia frequent nightclubs, have plenty of money and opportunity, and worry about being separated from each other (except that a host of technological options keep them no more than keystrokes apart). The similarities are chilling.
There are several missed opportunities in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The first and most obvious one is a deeper examination of life for women in 19th-century China. We get a glimpse, but because that storyline has to align with the insipid contemporary subplot, it isn't sustainable on its own. Another misfire is a genuine comparison between then and now, which is what Wayne Wang appears to be outlining by going back and forth so much. Unfortunately, the conceit is sandbagged by the 21st-century girls. Finally, the performances by Gianna Jun and Li Bingbing are sacrificed. Neither seems entirely comfortable speaking English, which is surprisingly prominent in the modern scenes, although both are very effective as Lily and Snow Flower.
And it's no wonder: That's the movie they were supposed to be making all along.