Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Directed by: Wayne Wang Cast: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Hugh Jackman Running Time: 2 hrs Rating: PG-13 Release Date: July 29, 2011 (limited)
PLOT: In 19th-century China, seven-year-old girls Snow Flower and Lily are matched as laotong - or "old sames" - bound together for eternity. Isolated by their families, they furtively communicate by taking turns writing in a secret language, nu shu, between the folds of a white silk fan. In a parallel story in present day Shanghai, the laotong's descendants, Nina and Sophia, struggle to maintain the intimacy of their own childhood friendship in the face of demanding careers, complicated love lives, and a relentlessly evolving Shanghai. Drawing on the lessons of the past, the two modern women must understand the story of their ancestral connection, hidden from them in the folds of the antique white silk fan, or risk losing one another forever. Story-line synopsis provided by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
WHO'S IT FOR? I take no pleasure in saying this, but this film seems to have been specifically designed, if not entirely honed, for the viewership of women and women alone. I feel one would be hard pressed to find a man who would truly enjoy this film, and as a man, I must say I felt a bit alienated while watching it. That said, if you're a woman, and you enjoy period pieces, and/or films about friendship between women, then this film might, and only might, be for you.
EXPECTATIONS: I knew very little about this film going in, but I did see the trailer, and it looked beautiful in part, so I was thinking that the film might be good. I did not see Joy Luck Club, but have heard many good things, so knowing that Wayne Wang directed this film, such may have boosted my expectations a bit -- but not by much.
ACTORS: Bingbing Li as Nina/Lily: She's gorgeous, and therefore (simply) expertly cast for a character who gets the most face time. I think she acts well too, though with the language barrier/cultural gap, I'm not sure if I'm qualified to comment much further. For what it's worth, I thought she did an adequate job -- she passed off believable emotion and looked great throughout. Score: 7
Gianna Jun as Sophia/Snow Flower: She reminds me of a Korean Drew Barrymore. I thought she had spunk and played her role well enough, but I found her acting to be a little bit self-aware. Score: 5
Hugh Jackman as Arthur: Jackman's star-power tore this film's very celluloid to shreds -- I thought the projector was going to burst into flames -- I couldn't believe how misplaced this glorified cameo was. Was this simply a gimmick to get Wolverine fans through the door? No, I highly doubt that -- Jackman was once dubbed the "sexiest man alive" by some major publication or another, so I'm sure this casting decision was made with women audiences in mind -- and again, I'm thinking this is the most male-alienating film I've ever seen. Still, Jackman's Arthur is awesome (Arthur is the magnanimous man), he's well-played, and he's the only quasi-respectable male figure in the film. Ultimately though, I felt like Jackman's presence here was a bit like bringing a nuke to a knife fight. Score: 6
TALKING: There's an interesting flow of different languages throughout this film, different Chinese dialects, a little Korean, and of course English rears its head too, but it's all in somewhat spotty form. Subtitles are of course provided when necessary, but ultimately, I'm sad to report that none of the dialog, whether read or heard, is really worth reporting. I didn't feel like anything was said that hasn't already been said in a million stories prior. Nothing resonated with me, but then again, I'm far from the target audience here, and it could be that there was some beautiful "you have to be a woman to understand this" stuff present in this story, but I wouldn't know it, as I'm lacking the gauge required to measure such things. I did pick up on a whole heckuva lot of anti-male sentiment though, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan had such in spades. Score: 3
SIGHTS: As the viewer bounces back and forth between 19th-century China and contemporary Shanghai, we are given some gorgeous things to look at. China is photogenic. It's huge, and any huge country will have its 'Kodak Photo Spots,' but I don't think I'd be speaking out of school if I said that China is extraordinarily photogenic. That said, yes, we're given some gorgeous shots of China, and modern day Shanghai is neat to see, but at the end of the day the cinematography here isn't much better than you'd see in a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime. It felt like a point-and-shoot production. On the upside, I found many of the Chinese women to be very easy on the eyes, and Hugh Jackman was so g'damned debonair it nearly destroyed my day. In general though, I thought the film's visuals were pretty average. Score: 5
SOUNDS: Extremely derivative music and heavy-handed to the Nth degree. I became aware of how director Wayne Wang wanted me to feel, a couple seconds early, every single time the film went for some kind of emotional push. In a way, I think the score, or rather the implementation of it, more or less ruined the film for me. Just an epic fail, in my opinion. Hugh Jackman's singing bit was nice, and made for a good change of pace, but it did sound a bit over-produced, a bit sonically "photo-shopped." Score: 2
BEST SCENE: Hugh Jackman belts out a hammed-to-the-max lounge tune, all in an effort to get a kiss from his pregnant lover. I'm sure Baz Luhrmann will get a big kick out of this scene, he'll be wondering, "maybe I should've put Ewan in Australia and Hugh in Moulin Rouge?" No, not really.
ENDING: Predictable as all get out, and kind of clunky. I didn't like how when Sophia began to wake from her coma, Nina reacted by weeping uncontrollably, well before it was obvious that Sophia was actually out of her coma. As a viewer, I felt like her happy tears, her celebratory reaction was unwarranted at that time, I wanted to see Sophia's eyes actually open. The timing and payoff just seemed off. The film failed to deliver the big emotional push that the music was begging for.
QUESTIONS: Why is Hugh Jackman in this film?
REWATCHABILITY: No way. Well, perhaps in another life, one where I am reborn as a man-hating woman.
This is a laborious film about what it meant to be a woman in 19th-century China. It is also a laborious film about what it means to be a woman in present day China. It is also a laborious film about what it means to be a woman and to have a best-best-best friend. It is also a laborious film about how horribly men treat women.
I'm really growing tired of writing "a laborious film about..."
I was doing so in order to mimic the way in which this film was delivered. I felt the pacing was too slow, the story too benign, and the entire crux of the film was just too meager. On top of all that, I felt the whole production had a whiny vibe to it.
I didn't find myself invested in the characters at all, and I had an extremely hard time getting into the 19th-century story, as it was just Sophia's attempt at a book. That's what this whole film felt like, an amateurish book. I was surprised to learn that this was director Wayne Wang's 19th feature film -- it felt like a first.
FINAL SCORE: 3/10