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No Secret Fan Club

In case you haven’t watched classic cartoons lately, “to shanghai” refers to the widespread 19th-century practice of forcing men, by means of deceipt or coercion, to serve as sailors on merchant vessels — often on ships bound for that Chinese seaport city. (My authoritative source for this bit of maritime history: Wikipedia.) I bring this up because that very metropolis, as well as an entire 21st-century storyline, have been pressed into service in the film version of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan — something that may come as a surprise to devotees of the book, which is set entirely in China’s landlocked Hunan Province, spanning several decades of the 19th century.

According to the Los Angeles Times, director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) recommended adding the contemporary parallel plot in order “to set Snow Flower apart from so many period-set Chinese films that strike American audiences as dusty, inscrutable and inaccessible.” (Apparently the Times did not receive the memo cautioning reporters against stereotyping Asians as inscrutable, but anyway.) Despite the fact that Snow Flower bears all the hallmarks of an art house offering (period setting, subtitles, mostly female cast of performers unknown in the U.S.), the producers — including media titan Rupert Murdoch’s Chinese-born third wife, Wendi — were apparently intent on making a global blockbuster. What they’ve delivered instead are two stripped-down, not very compelling stories, at a pace that can be stultifyingly slow.

The film opens in present-day Shanghai, with successful banking executive Nina (Bingbing Li) called to the hospital bedside of her friend Sophia (Gianna Jun), who’s been in a serious bicycle accident. Friends since they were teenagers, the two have suffered a recent estrangement, the source of which the viewer doesn’t learn until much later. Through some vague references to Sophia’s family history, a connection is made to the feudal tradition of laotong, a pairing of two young girls as “old sames” in a lifelong friendship stronger than the bonds of blood and certainly of marriage. Thus begins the story line that readers of Lisa See’s novel will recognize, that of Lily, a poor peasant girl who is paired as laotong with Snow Flower, a girl of greater refinement whose family’s fortunes are in decline (Li and Jun have dual roles as Lily and Snow Flower, respectively). As Lily’s social status rises with an advantageous marriage, Snow Flower’s goes in the opposite direction, and the bond between them is eventually ruptured.

Although the gruesome process and unbearable pain of footbinding are briefly depicted, the filmmakers have removed or softened most of the other sharp edges from the original novel — Lily’s cold and distant mother and the deaths of her younger sister and beloved cousin, the ignominy of Snow Flower’s father’s addiction to opium, the privations both women suffer in fleeing a civil war (and the fact that Snow Flower is the only person Lily ever seems to feel any sexual attraction to in her entire life is not even hinted at). But the devastation of losing a friendship remains the emotional crux of the film, and this idea carries over into the contemporary story line. However, when the fracture in Nina and Sophia’s friendship occurs, it feels completely contrived — mostly an excuse to give Hugh Jackman, as Sophia’s Australian boyfriend, something to do (he even sings a song); and the ending is entirely predictable and schematic. In this plot strand, the Chinese government’s well-publicized destruction of the nation’s cultural heritage in its breakneck pursuit of modernization is suggested, but the filmmakers’ failure to explore that theme feels like a missed opportunity.

Wang, Murdoch, and company may have been striving for a Chinese Steel Magnolias, but Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is too emotionally flat and slow-paced to engage most viewers, whether or not they are admirers of the book.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, and Hugh Jackman star in a film directed by Wayne Wang, written by Angela Workman and Ron Bass, and based on the novel by Lisa See.

Rated PG-13 for mild sexual content, some violence and disturbing images, and a brief depiction of opium usage. Running time: 120 minutes.

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