Secrets in the Folds of 'Secret Fan' are Sluggish, Awkward

Directed by: Wayne Wang, Runtime: 120 minutes
Grade: D

Several appealing themes and historical allures adorn Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: the camaraderie that forms amongst women, the practice of legally acknowledging that bond in 1800s China, and the use of a retracting hand fan as a means of secret communication between them. Most of these trace back the source material, Lisa See's heartrending novel that explores the pains of the era and the limited choices women were presented with, all handsomely dressed by capable photography that captures gorgeous locales and detailed garment work. But for everything that it gets right on the surface, Wayne Wang's direction takes it two steps back, resulting in a poorly-paced, tiresome, and often gratingly-acted period drama that's quite a lengthy distance behind the director's work on The Joy Luck Club.

Fans of the book will be left confused by the alterations found. The bulk of it still takes place in 19th century China, where two young girls -- Snow Flower (Gianna Jun, Blood the Last Vampire), who comes from a wealthy family, and Lily (Li Bingbing, The Forbidden Kingdom), who comes from poverty -- are sworn to one another as friends under the practice of laotong, a bond considered stronger than marriage due to the "willingness" of it. Since they're of similar age, the dissimilar pair experiences the same issues that girls of the era would endure, especially that of foot binding, the painful bending and "beautifying" of feet. We follow them through their marriages, navigated by their appearance instead of class, and see how they secretly communicate through Nüshu script (a secret women's language) written on a folding silk fan when one of their families doesn't approve of their bond.

Then, there's another side of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that takes place in the modern era, which is where the head-scratching begins. Teenage descendants of Snow Flower and Lily -- Sophia and Nina respectively, played by the same actresses -- also undergo the legally-binding laotong ceremony as a way of keeping history alive, yet Nina's family doesn't approve of Sophie, which keeps them separated. The actual here-and-now of the story finds Nina, now a well-to-do businesswoman, flying from New York (where she works) to Shanghai after an accident puts loose-cannon Sophie in the hospital, leading Nina to discover the path that her friend's life has taken in her absence. Through some sleuthing, she discovers where her laotong partner has been living and writing, why she's been venturing to a men's bathhouse, and how she got tangled up with an Australian bar-owner (Hugh Jackman).

While I can appreciate the intent behind the intersecting story threads -- the importance of the bond between women has traversed and withstood time, no matter the challenges that a certain era brings -- shoehorning the two periods into one film leaves little breathing room for focused drama within each, giving the narrative a heavy, dreary consistency due to its involvedness. There's a lot of story jumping going on in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and none of it is terribly satisfying to behold; watching the visual exploration of culture differences and parallels between the 1800s Chinese wives and their modern-era descendants offered a few sporadic moments of interest, but it's only on a purely cursory level. It's obvious that an earnest tale of strife and rigidity exists in the historical half of the adaptation, and that it has something profound to say, but it's not articulated here.

While Wayne Wang dresses Snow Flower and the Secret Fan with lavish colors, rustic scenery, and opulent low-key costume work, which intrigues the senses, he neglects to find dramatic steadiness or a robust thematic purpose behind his pretty but bloated period work. He shows a greater interest in allowing despondent facial close-ups and visual flair to force-feed tenderness instead of a true sense of empathetic draw, no matter which time period we're talking about, and it's not helped by the performances that either overextend or rigidly force the story's intimate and delicate moments. That's a big problem considering the personal nature of the story, and once Wang attempts to tie everything together into an evocative history-meets-modernity bow at the end, there's not enough valid emotional impetus to reinforce what should be a heartfelt and captivating cap to this arduous journey.

Oh well. At least you get to see Hugh Jackman sing in Mandarin.

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