Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Screenplay by Angela Workman, Ron Bass & Michael Ray

Based on the novel by Lisa See

Cinematography by Richard Wong

Art Direction by Molly Page

Music by Rachel Portman

Produced by Wendi Murdoch, Florence Sloan & Hugo Shong

Directed by Wayne Wang

2011


Cast:

Li Bing Bing

Gianna Jun

Vivian Wu

Archie Kao

Wu Jiang

Hu Qing Yun

Hugh Jackman


Production Studio:

Theatrical: Big Feet

Video: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p

Codec: AVC

Disc Size: BD50

Feature Size: ca. 35 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate (25-30 Mbps)

Runtime: 104 minutes

Chapters: 24


Audio:

Mandarin & English DTS-HD MA 5.1

English Dolby Digital 5.1


Subtitles:

Optional English SDH, French & Spanish


Extras:

The Sworn Sisterhood of the Secret Fan - in HD (29:00)

Previews in HD


Presentation:

Blu-ray Case w/ slipcover: BRD x 1

Street Date: November 1, 2011



The Movie: 8

Synopsis [Fox]:

Inspired by author Lisa See’s bestselling novel of the same name, SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN tells a poignant tale of eternal friendship. Growing up in 19th century China, Lily (Li Bing Bing: The Message, The Forbidden Kingdom, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun: My Sassy Girl, Il Mare, Blood: The Last Vampire) are brought together in a Laotong friendship—a lifelong bond between two women who rely on each other for companionship and comfort. Amid the civil unrest and gender discrimination of the era, the pair deals with life’s hardships together until they are separated by marriage and childbirth. As sworn sisters, however, the women continue to communicate through the secret Chinese language of nushu, hiding their stories and messages within the folds of delicate silk fans.


     


In present day Shanghai, the Laotong’s descendants Nina (also played by Li) and Sophia (also played by Jun) struggle to maintain the intimacy of their own childhood friendship in the face of demanding careers and complicated love lives. Drawing on lessons of the past, the two modern women must understand the story of their ancestral connection or risk losing one another forever. What unfolds are two stories, generations apart, but everlasting in the notion of love, hope and friendship.


     


The Movie: 6

Who’d a thought - certainly not I - that from such $22,000 acorns as “Chan is Missing” that a lavish $6,000,000 costume drama would emerge from the energies and talents of Wayne Wang, a Chinese-American who is probably most familiar to American audiences by way of his 1993 “Joy Luck Club.”  Both “Joy Luck Club” and “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” are based on popular novels in English by Chinese-American women.  The success of the earlier film may have in some measure prompted the new movie, with which it shares a basic theme: the exploration of love, family identity and relationships.


     


There is no question as to the critical and popular success of Amy Tan’s “Joy Luck Club;” less certain is the 2005 novel by Lisa See, though respected in critical circles and enjoyed by many.  The novel is a story of sisterhood as told from the perspective of Lily, the 80-year old protagonist in 1903 when she tells her story.  Wayne Wang’s film version makes a serious change in the narrative structure.  A risky one that all but sank “The French Lieutenant's Woman”: the telling of parallel stories from different time periods: one contemporary to the time of the movie audience, the other contemporary to the time of the book.  In my experience this rarely works in balance: The idea is clear enough: in the case of “Snow Flower” it is to dramatize how important, yet difficult true sisterhood is, whether or not the bond was chosen for you or by you. The modern story, it was thought, makes it easier for people today to identify with the protagonists.  In the bonus feature Wang admits that he asked for the modern story because, in large part, he did not see himself as a director of historical material.  This turned out to be a mistake since that part of his movie is every bit as good, better I think, than the contemporary story.


     


The movie opens in the present time, in Shanghai, where Nina (Li Bing Bing) has just been promoted to spearhead a new venture in the New York office. For Nina, a dream come true, while her “laotong” sister, Sophia (played by the popular Korean actress,  Jun Ji-hyun, credited here as Gianna Jun) is busy getting herself smashed into a coma by a passing taxi.  Nina and Sophia haven’t seen each other in some while and last parted inamicably.  Nina decides to put off her trip to New York while she attends to Sophia and tries to learn what happened to Sophia since they last met, and make sense out of their disharmony.


As luck would have it, Sophia left a guidebook in the form of a novel she was working on, ostensibly about her ancestors nearly 200 years earlier, but also as a way of helping her, and therefore, Nina, to understand their relationship as well.


     


If, like me, you were unlucky enough to have been visited upon by Fox’s grossly misleading marketing campaign (including the above synopsis), you might have come to this film anticipating a story of a SECRET love kept at length by historical forces determined to prevent it.  Horse pucky.  The first thing we learn from Sophia’s novel “Snow Flower & the Secret Fan” - which, by the way, forms the bulk of the movie - is that the two children, Snow Flower and Lily were chosen to be paired as “laotong” in much the same way as a couple is chosen for an arranged marriage: family connections and physical criteria are considered as are astrological considerations.  Everyone knows about it.  Everyone.  So much for secrecy.


     


And what about the “secret fan”.  Not so much as you might expect.  The children are taught a written language called Nü Shu, unique to laotong relationships through which they communicate - as do many children in a way, except that in western societies the language is informally learned.  As with many things oriental (as opposed to occidental), Nü Shu is exquisitely expressive, a form of poetry.  Feelings are shared and passed between them or by intermediaries when they are separated.  Not a great deal is made about the writing in the movie - If it weren’t for the title and the trailers, I wouldn’t have noticed its lack of development.


     


The dramatic emphasis is elsewhere: on the girls’ changing fortunes and how those fortunes and their expectations of one another make demands on their friendship that eventually cost them dearly.  This is really the heart of the film, and what was true for Lily and Snow Flower is equally true for Nina and Sophia.  This theme isn’t meant to be subtle, but it does have Fox’s advance notice to work against, so take precautions.


For the most part, I found myself fascinated by the history and drawn into the emotional narrative, especially for the “older” couple.  It was more difficult to make the same connection with Nina and Sophia for a number of reasons: the first is obvious: Sophia spends nearly the entire movie in a coma.  There are flashbacks within the modern story, but I found it tended to compete with, rather than be amplified by the ancient story.  I’m speaking of the emotional connection.  Intellectually, the connection was always crystal clear.


     


But there is one other problem, a judgment call on the part of the filmmakers I would have not made.  Nina and Sophia (the characters, not the actors) are both native Chinese speakers; they learn English to get a foothold in and thrive in an English-speaking world, even if they were never to leave China.  The director and writers allow us to see them switch between the languages with some fluidity, but preferring English as they become adults.  So far, so good.  The problem is that in those moments where they are most passionate and when the stresses in their relationship are at a breaking poit, they speak in English.


     


Perhaps I would not have winced if the actors were absolutely fluid in English.  But they aren’t.  So, taking the characters much as I did the actors, why on earth are they speaking in English at such moments.  Isn’t it more natural for them to “revert” to their native language?  The actors would have been more compelling at these moments as well. (Having said that I should mention that Gianna Jun’s Chinese was not considered to be proficient enough and so she was directed to act her lines in Korean, and then be dubbed by a different voice for each of her two characters - fairly effectively I might add.) I’m not sure what went into the decision to have Nina and Sophia speak in English at these critical times - the bonus feature skirts around the question - but I feel it dissolved the tension when what was meant was to tighten it.


     


One final observation about the title: The characters of Snow Flower and Sophia are rather marginalized, with Lily/Nina taking up the lion’s share of screen time.  As lovely as she is, I found myself tiring of Wang’s relentless closeups of Li Bing Bing, longing instead for the object of her contemplations: Sophia and Snow Flower.  It’s too bad because Giana Jun is the more expressive actress - at least she is here if for no other reason that Nina and Lily are so dead emotionally.  We understand why Wang is so focused on Li, because the story is about Nina’s search for meaning and, though she unaware of it to start with, for love.  Sophia has already found both, expressed in Snow Flower’s fan.  It’s quite sweet, really.


     


Even though I am in sympathy with their observations it appears that I rated this film slightly higher than any of the Metacritics:


NY Times:

There are enough decent moments in "Snow Flower" that you can at times see the remains of a better movie amid the jolting transitions between past and present, but these eras never really speak to each other, much less to you. - Manohla Dargis


Chicago Sun-Times:

Soppy and sentimental, it evokes "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" without improving on it. - Roger Ebert


Los Angeles Times:

With Snow Flower, the filmmaker is forever torn between two childhoods, two adulthoods, two distinct political and social eras, and two complex relationships, unable to make both equally relevant. - Betsy Sharkey


     


Image: 9/9

Snow Flower & the Secret Fan is, do far, this year’s most beautiful film to look at in terms of lighting, color and texture.  It may remind you of Memories of a Geisha, only better and less ostentatious.  Its beauty flows over us without our even being aware of it.  I say this even though there will be moments when you will not fail to gasp at its artistry, however deliberately framed by Wang and Cinematographer Richard Wong.


Fox’s Blu-ray image nails color and contrast perfectly.  In the nineteenth century story there isn’t a single frame where the highs are blown out or the deepest colors do not seem to have infinite shading.  I observed no distracting transfer issues; however, a certain amount of fine grain noise in some darkly lit scenes keeps this lovely image from getting a perfect score.


     


Audio: 7/8

Considering the care that went into the art direction, I expected as much on the audio front.  Not that there is an abundance of opportunity to revel in nuance or surround cues.  There is some, as in contemporary club scenes or during a rainfall or a crowd of people fleeing n advance of invaders. But, curiously, the audio remained more front directed than I would have wanted.  That said, what was there (Rachel Portman’s atmospheric music, dialogue, effects) was always clear and properly proportioned and positioned.


     


Extras: 5

Snow Flower & the Secret Fan benefits from a proper historical perspective and author Lisa See is on hand to provide it.  It is here that we learn the secret behind the secret: that while the practice of foot binding was widespread in China for centuries, any thought that her readers or the movie audience may have had that the “lautong” everlasting friendship between women and secret writing practices of “Nü Shu” were limited to a single county, Lisa See says “for a thousand years.”  And, in case it wasn’t clear in the movie (I felt it was) the written language is taught to succeeding generations of lautong pairs.  Foot binding, on the other hand, was far more widespread throughout China, and is described by See in excruciating detail.


     


The single bonus feature “The Sworn Sisterhood of the Secret Fan” is quite good as far as it goes, and presented in good quality HD, and touches quite a bit on the actors, especially the two leading ladies, and how they prepared for their roles.  Not nearly enough on production however, though Wayne Wang’s description of shooting conditions outside Shanghai was fascinating.  Required viewing.

Recommendation: 7

Snow Flower & the Secret Fan is far too gorgeous to be missed in high definition.  Try to ignore the trailers and marketing hype, such as it was. Despite my criticisms I rather liked this movie and expect to revisit it before long.


     



Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

November 1, 2011



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