Parallel stories don't hold up
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Jul 22, 2011
As anyone who has uttered the words, "The book was better" knows, it's not easy to distill hundreds of pages from a novel into an economical feature-length film. Something nearly always gets lost in the translation.
Maybe that makes "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," the movie adaptation of Lisa See's 2005 novel, all the more puzzling. Screenwriters Angela Workman, Ronald Bass and Michael Ray didn't just pare down the tale of two best friends in 19th-century China; they added a second, parallel story set in modern day.
The books-trump-movies camp knows where this is headed: The film version - co-produced by none other than Wendi Murdoch (Rupert's wife), who, clearly, isn't having such a great week to begin with - contains two characters and one narrative too many.
The movie opens in the current era as Nina prepares to move from Shanghai to New York for a job opportunity. A late-night call throws a wrench into her plans, when she hears that her childhood best friend, Sophia, is unconscious and hospitalized after what appears to be a suicide mission that involved riding a bicycle on a highway. Among Sophia's personal effects, Nina finds a manuscript. It's the 19th-century story of two best friends, Snow Flower - one of Sophia's ancestors - and Lily, who are bound together as laotong, which translates to "old sames." Because they are born under the same sign and had their feet horrifically bound on the same day, they are ordained by a kind of matchmaker to be best friends for life. And they are more than happy to comply. Even after they are forbidden from seeing each other, they covertly send messages scrawled in a private language on the folds of a secret fan.
As Snow Flower and Lily age, acting duties go to Gianna Jun, who also plays an adult Sophia, and Li Bing Bing, who portrays Nina. The film drifts between time periods and story lines, and in case the parallels of these relationships aren't clear, the casting should drive the point home. Both friendships begin intensely and oscillate between intimate and strained before a final perceived betrayal.
The film, directed by Wayne Wang (whose eclectic filmography includes "The Joy Luck Club," "Maid in Manhattan" and "Because of Winn Dixie"), emphasizes melodrama over character development, until the proceedings feel like a rabbit hole of misfortune. There is an abusive husband, a miscarriage, suicide, opium addiction, lost fortunes, an evil stepmother, a plague, a dying child and murderous rebels.
When it seems things couldn't get worse, Hugh Jackman (who plays Sophia's ex-boyfriend) swoops in to croon a little ditty. This does lighten a mood that tends toward sorrowful and plodding set against a perpetually rainy backdrop.
Amazingly, the final moments of the film manage to mine the poignancy that should have permeated the preceding 90 minutes. It's not enough to make the movie worth the price of admission, however, especially when the paperback costs about the same.
Contains sexual situations, brief drug use, disturbing images of bound feet and some language.