Asians in the Movies 唐人做電影

Currently watching Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I read the 2005 Lisa See novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan last year partly because the novel was apparently “good enough” to be adapted to screenplay and it was my discovery of a very active writer, See, of Chinese(-American) stories. I have looked forward to the release of this movie starring Li Bing Bing, Gianna Jun, Archie Kao (whom I last saw in The People I’ve Slept With, and I don’t watch CSI), and a cameo by Hugh Jackman. The M and MX podcast I listened to last year about Snow Flower spoils a little a surprise in the movie.

Snow Flower is directed by Wayne Wang of 1993’s Joy Luck Club movie fame. In the 18 years in between, he has directed 11 movies, with no central theme that I can make out. You may have heard of action movie Chinese Box starring Gong Li (1997), romantic comedy Anywhere But Here starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman (1999), fairly successful romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan starring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes (2002), children and animal movie Because of Wynn-Dixie (2005), and another romantic comedy Last Holiday starring Queen Latifah (2006). Since 2007, he has directed three other Asian-American film projects, but nothing as big as Snow Flower.

So, it’s kind of weird to see Hugh Jackman in the cast list. He certainly was not in the novel. What gives? The screenplay has a modern storyline in addition to the one set in the past and I watched a Lisa See interview where she acknowledged that Wayne Wang is an artist just like herself and envisioned something new, that the movie is her novel adapted very well with icing (the modern story) on top!

A long week after the movie had limited release in theaters, I pretty much dragged NPY to watch it with me at a small theater most local to me. It was a little disheartening to see just about 20 people on a Thursday night… how will this movie do?

In the movie, the 19th century sworn sisters (laotong), Snow Flower and Lily, are played by Jun and Li, respectively. In the 20th/21st century parallel thread, distant descendants of Snow Flower and Lily, Sophia and Nina, are also played by Jun and Li. On the eve of her departure for a spectacular career move in NYC, Nina is called to the hospital bedside of her estranged best friend, Sophia, who is in a coma after a traffic accident. Going through Sophia’s effects, Nina discovers the manuscript Sophia was preparing about their ancestors’ lives; similar themes surrounding women’s friendship and struggles are shown to exist in the past and now, and we also learn how Nina and Sophia came to be estranged.

I really liked seeing Snow Flower and Lily’s 19th century lives come to the screen, but I felt everything was glossed over: their excruciating foot-binding experiences, the intricacies of making a marriage match that transcended traditional class lines and restrictions, the different kinds of bonds between women who have a society unto themselves, and the women’s particular married lives. I loved the detailed treatment in the novel and resented a little when time was given to the modern storyline. Although I expected and did not get sweeping scenes of untouched areas of China, I thought the scenes of rural 19th century Chinese life were beautifully depicted and the silent struggle of women was palpable.

In the modern story, Nina and Sophia become the closest of friends despite Sophia’s stepmother’s objection, and as adolescents, they bring up the forgotten custom and swear to be sworn sisters for life. Just like her ancestral counterpart, Snow Flower, Sophia falls onto familial difficulty while Nina has gotten lucky, achieving more than anyone expected. Both of Li Bing Bing’s characters (Lily and Nina) have the role of being perpetually worried and trying to help out the other. To release the worrying sister, Jun’s characters devise ways to let them off the responsibility hook… will the sisters in both storylines find each other again and reconcile?

While I will continue to suspect that the modern storyline was a risk mitigation maneuver against a 100% period piece and to attract a wider viewership, while watching the modern storyline scenes, I did feel the magical feeling of watching an artsy Hong Kong film. There is a special ethereal quality to those Hong Kong films which aren’t particularly arthouse but unsettlingly (to me) arty indeed. I hope the Snow Flower filmgoer will notice and appreciate this.

The film was very much all about the female leads as it is all about sisterhood and friendship the way Joy Luck Club was all about mothers and daughters. The male characters (Hugh Jackman and Archie Kao) are more well-known in the west than Li and Jun but were very much background and cameo characters. I would have wanted to see more of these characters, particularly the tough Butcher, Snow Flower’s husband, but that would not be the intent of the movie.

Partway through the movie, I wondered to myself just how I would blog about this movie. It was, and still is, a conundrum. We did not find it really uplifting. I guess I could recall the conclusion from the novel and mentally braced for the impact. NPY did not and remarked after the movie how it was “so f-ing depressing“. I guess it was. There was just a little too much fragmentation to be truly swept away and pulled into either world.

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