Wayne Wang shared with me in interview that his wife tells him that he was a woman in a previous life, and with titles that include The Joy Luck Club and Maid in Manhattan. His wife, I am guessing, is right. Wang seems to understand the make up of women, their sensibilities and the manor in which both their brains and emotions work. In The Joy Luck Club he combined this intuition with beautiful cinematograph that captured a story. Maid in Manhattan, while following a more traditional Hollywood formula, still had the hallmarks of a woman. Snowflower and the Secret Fan is no exception.
Snowflower, at its heart, is the story of friendship and the lifelong bond of two women. The film is based on Lisa See’s bestselling novel. However, Wang adds in a modern twist by literally adding in a second more modern version of See’s story to the film. Snowflower and Nina inhabit the world of See’s novel set in 19th centuryChina. Their counterparts Lily and Sophia live in modern time.
The world of Snowflower and Nina is both fascinating and beautiful. The audience bears witness to the hardship of the 19th century Chinese woman through foot-binding and arranged marriages. It is a world that seems remote, yet in actuality is not that far behind us — historically speaking. Switch out to the modern version of this story set in beautiful and vivacious Shanghai. Lily and Sophia feel worlds away, and that is just how the film reads, disjointed. The edits between the two worlds are rough and Wang’s choice to use Chinese, in 19th century and English in modern day Shanghai only amplify this feeling. It is difficult to ever really immerse yourself in either world, and that is a shame because the aspects of 19th China are beautifully portrayed, from the costume design to the sets each frame reading like a photograph to be studied.
This disjointedness also affects Wang’s ability to connect with the female audience, a skill that generally comes easily to Wang feels forced. Again the history here is fascinating, the practice of LaoTongs, a legal contract made between two women and the use of nu shu, the secret language of women, are illustrated wonderfully. It seems like a disruption to have modern day Lily and Sophia on the same screen.
Rachel Portman’s score and the music in the film, in the old world that is, are wonderful. The modern day scene in a nightclub featuring Hugh Jackman singing, I can pass on. It is images and scenes like this that make the film feel fragmented and hard to follow.
I left the screening wondering what the film would have been like, had Wang simply stuck to the telling the story 19th century China and the woman that inhabited that world. I have a hunch that I would have left the theater immersed in the old world, most likely having difficulty shaking it, rather than wanting to read Lisa See’s novel to learn more about Snowflower and Nina and their world, which I guess is not a bad thing if you are See and not Wang. My advice, skip the film and read the book.