By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Director Wayne Wang’s new dramatic film “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” begins with a business diner in Shanghai. The well-dressed Chinese at the table speak fluent English and toast two of their number. Nina (played by Bingbing Li) and Sebastian (Archie Kao) are to leave for New York to open a new office for the company.
But Nina soon gets some urgent news regarding her best friend Sophia (Gianna Jun). Suddenly she must put her business plans on hold and rush to her friend’s side.
The two friends had a bad falling out and haven’t spoken in months. But Nina and Sophia took a “laotong” vow of eternal friendship, as teenagers. They are each other’s best friend, and Nina feels an obligation to help, no matter what it takes.
Lisa See’s bestselling novel “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” takes place entirely in mainland China, between 1823 and 1903. It concerns two other “laotong sisters,” Snow Flower and Lily, who marry, have children, and live through the era’s many upheavals. One woman toes the line, while the other struggles, with mixed results, to break free of the limitations for women of that time.
The film’s screenplay, written by Angela Workman, Ronald Bass, and Michael K. Ray, takes the radical step of switching the action between that era and the present day. Li and Jun play Nina and Sophia in the present, but they also play Lily and Snow Flower, respectively, in the past.
This allows director Wang to compare and contrast the role of women, and the options available to them, in two different eras. It also allows him to show parallels between these times.
Gianna Jun is originally from Korea. Her characters, past and present, have a tendency to push limits, sometimes with disastrous consequences. As Snow Flower, she takes a husband and starts a family because she has, practically speaking, no choice. But she will never stop questioning the system and yearning to live outside it.
Bingbing Li hails from the Chinese town of Harbin. As Nina in the present and Lily in the past, she constantly tries to calm Jun’s characters, urging her laotong to settle down and accept what is. Her constant sense of practicality makes Li’s characters stronger at first. But they both learn, as the film unwinds, the price of always keeping one’s true passions in check.
Li is eight years older than Jun in real life. Both actresses must play ages ranging from mid-teens to early forties. Director Wang guides them assuredly through all of these changes, making sure the film runs fluidly.
The production- and costume designer, Lim Chung Man, also deserves praise. The many and diverse period costumes, especially, always look convincing regardless of specific time period or the class of the wearers. And the overall look of the film plays off the bright reds and blues of the past, contrasted with the skyscraper grays of modern times.
Wayne Wang was born in Hong Kong and spent his early adulthood in California.
His films have always gone back and forth between Asia and the U.S., reflecting many different sensibilities along the way. His latest movie allows him to reflect different historical times as well. Through decades, and through centuries, the women grow and adapt. Their options, and their relationships to men, undergo vast upheavals. Their quiet, everlasting sisterhood endures and abides. ♦
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” opens Friday, July 22 at the Seven Gables Theatre, 911 N.E. 50th Street at Roosevelt Way N.E. in Seattle’s University District. For prices and showtimes, check local listings, call 206. 781.5755, or visit http://www.landmarktheaters.com/market/Seattle/SevenGablesTheatre.htm.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.