'Snow Flower' Wilts
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Undoubtedly intended as classy art-house counterprogramming during a summer of glowing superheroes, talking robots and thinking apes, the multigenerational drama of "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" instead functions more as a cautionary tale about what can happen when a director is so eager to repeat his biggest success that he winds up creating a soulless clone of his own work. With 1993's "The Joy Luck Club," director Wayne Wang enjoyed what was, at the time, his biggest financial success and critical high point in telling the stories of four Chinese women and their four raised-in-America daughters. Since then, Wang's films have been either rough but rich films more loved than seen ("Smoke," "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers") or completely anonymous big-studio films wet with a greasy sheen of slick commercialism ("Maid in Manhattan," "Last Holiday").
Here, the director's returning to several of the elements that made "Joy Luck Club" what it was -- beginning with a well-loved novel adapted by Ron Bass (although, here, Angela Workman and Michael Ray must take some of the blame with their contractual credit) and building to the cut-and-contrast between two distinct sets of women in two distinct times. In the 1800s, we see the empty arranged marriages and cruel foot-binding that Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bingbing) have to endure. In 2010, we see how fate and chance have driven ambitious businesswoman Nina (Bingbing) and would-be novelist Sophia (Jun) apart.
So we get clumsy visual metaphors like witnessing the breaking of bones so that young girls could grow to be valued and valuable women in the past juxtaposed with a modern woman shrugging off her crimson-soled Louboutin high heels and caressing her aching feet. Whether or not you admire "The Joy Luck Club" -- many loved both the film and Amy Tan's original novel -- you would have to allow that there was some joy in it, some humor, some sense of grace even as it talked about the challenges women faced in both China and America, past and the present. "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," taken from Lisa See's novel, just feels like misery tourism for the audience to take in, the characters in the 19th century trapped in a world of barbarism, tyranny, superstition and patriarchy with the occasional typhoid epidemic or brutal beating at the hands of a dead-eyed spouse to break up the monotony.
The film's title refers to the fan used by Lily and Snow Flower to pass messages back and forth -- written in a secret language, their communication enshrining their connection as "laotong," life-bonded "sisters." Nina, reunited with life-long but lost friend Sophie in the wake of an accident that renders Sophie hospital-bound and comatose, finds a manuscript in Sophie's possessions that tells the story of her ancestor Snow Fan. This makes Nina reel into melancholy and on-the-nose voice-over: "What happened to the promises we made?" We're invited to contrast the loveless marriages-for-profit Lily and Snow Flower endure with the sacrifices that Nina and Sophie make. And we might, if we were given any reason to care about Lily, Snow Flower, Nina and Sophie as real people, as rounded characters, as anything more than showy acting exercises and delicate vessels for suffering.
The film is produced by Wendi Murdoch, the China born-wife of FOX media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who not coincidentally owns releasing studio FOX Searchlight, and make what you will of the link between that and the film's depiction of marriage for status and upward social mobility, not love. It repeats the same thesis for two hours. It was hard to be a woman then, it is hard to be a woman now, and while many things have changed, many things have not. But this feels less like Zen understanding than willful oblivion. No, Sophie and Nina don't have their feet broken and bound, but they live in a one-party state where they have no say in who represents them, a fact the film's neon-and-nightclub vision of go-go modern Shanghai conveniently overlooks.
Even the visual style of the film feels stolen, with the modern sections playing a little like Wong Kar-Wai's blurry fluorescent urban fantasies and the flashbacks set in a generic period-piece combination of splendor and squalor, where horrible things happen in front of beautiful furniture and brutal violence strikes down people wearing delicate embroidery. Wang's trying to reheat a dish he's served up before, but it has none of the flavor or the freshness it had 18 years ago, and instead offers us microwaved melodrama and tasteless, tear-jerking, artificially flavored suffering. I briefly felt bad when the film, in its first five minutes, knocked Sophie into a coma. But I felt even worse 10 minutes later: Dear reader, I envied her.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.