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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

A Beautifully Unsuccessful Adaptation of a Best Seller

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The discovery of a pair of tiny woven shoes, barely bigger than doll's feet, triggers the cross-century story in the film adaptation of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Belonging to the ancestor of a girl in present-day Shanghai, those shoes represent an era when the feet of Chinese women were tightly bound in a crippling reminder of their dependence on men (with overtones of fetishism, at least from a post-Freud vantage). While showing the shoes to her best friend, she brings up another custom of old China, laotong, a "vow of eternal commitment" between two women. The emotional soul marriage was a partial compensation for the lack of love within the economically based, arranged marriages of Chinese society. The two modern girls bind themselves in laotong, which begins the flip-flop flashbacks between the 19th century and now with their parallel stories of soulmates from across the class divisions of their times.

Drawn from Lisa See's best-selling novel of 19th century China, director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) under the firm hand of co-producer Wendi Murdoch (ninja wife of the disgraced media mogul) framed the original story with a contemporary scenario in "chick flick" terms, complete with sensitive tinkling on the piano in tender moments, a swelling orchestra when the mood reaches melodrama and a plot that doesn't so much play on the heart strings as pound them to death. Despite this, what Wang shows is often interesting, both for its portrait of China's past and its depiction of 21st century Shanghai, a city rising from the morning mist like a CGI mirage, its skyscrapers lit at night like a forest of Christmas trees.

That the contemporary protagonists (played by Gianna Jun and Li Bingbing) are called Nina and Sophia and have boyfriends with names like Sebastian speaks for the enormous changes that have overtaken China. An urban upper class has sprung into existence, rising by hard work and study and embracing aspects of the West under the maxim of Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping: "To be wealthy is glorious." But while this pursuit of the Chinese Dream, like its American model, extols the pursuit of happiness, it cannot guarantee results. And then there is the counter pull of tradition, with ancient Chinese melodies and dance performed in clubs with a techno beat, and the whole notion of laotong as the emotional yang to the financial yin of a society bent on world conquest through bank loans. As Nina's boss announces at the dinner party opening the picture, an opulent celebration of his bank's forthcoming U.S. branch: "Make us proud in New York and make us a lot of money."

Nina and Sophia, as well as many other characters, often speak in perfectly idiomatic American English, which may well be the lingua franca of China's upper class but also suggests the strategy of many recent "art house" films to minimize subtitles for maximum American box office. Despite the bloody bandaged feet in the 19th century scenes, Wang (or is it Murdoch?) seems to accept the consoling idea offered by a mother whose daughter's feet were being broken: "Only through pain will you find beauty." The old China of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a study in silk, brocade and the careful brush strokes of calligraphy on canvas; the emotionally buffeted women of contemporary China are draped in club-hopping "Sex and the City" glamour. Although beautiful to look at, Snow Flower buttresses an old movie industry truism—the one about the book being better than the film.