Before picking up Snow Flower and the Secret Fan I had to check and see if the title was a joke of some kind. The DVD box, kindly paraphrased in the poster below, displayed the kind of picturesque coyness usually associated with caricatures of China rather than the real deal. "Surely this is some kind of joke", I thought, "maybe a Scary Movie for Chinese-American coming of age films?"
True, that would be a niche market, but the results would play far more interestingly than the nearly comatose story of SFatSF. Any stab at humor, even of the hateful Friedberg/Seltzer persuasion, would have given me more pause to try and feel anything during the run-time. As it stands this is a unbearably long film (quite the feat considering it's only ninety minutes long) which takes itself far too seriously and barely bothers to formulate much of a plot beyond "friendships exist in different eras".
All of this plays like a strange parody of one of the best films about the Chinese-American experience I have seen, The Joy Luck Club. I had the good fortune to watch that movie when Oprah recommended it to my mother many years ago and I was home sick with the flu. It's not the kind of film I think of very often, but it's brutal yet tender way of presenting the hardships of multiple generations of a marginalized culture really shaped the way I accept and view film now.
This is in contrast to the dreadfully somber SFatSF, which is strange considering both films are directed by Wayne Wang. Since his success as a chronicler of his cultures experiences assimilating into America, he has basically twiddled away at making comedies both fun (Queen Latifah-starring Last Holiday) and dreadful (smiling dog atrocity Because of Winn-dixie). As a result SFatSF feels very much like a self-conscious attempt at getting back into the kind of honest, pseudo-historical storytelling he began his success with.
The result is pristine to look at but without much personality. The shadows of the past drape over Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bingbing) as they live their lives in Hunan almost 200 years ago. Amber hues are the order of the day and while they are used to pretty measure it doesn't mean much to the overall narrative other than calling attention to the fact the past is frozen.
Apparently this is where the novel actually takes place. The frequent flashbacks to modern times show a very closely paralelled story of quieter oppression faced by Nina (Bingbing again) and Sophia (Jun again). I understand, to a point, why the screenwriters Angela Workman, Ronald Bass and Michael K. Ray felt the need to include these flash-forwards. It illustrates just how little progress has been made (a valid concern) and how friendships last forever (a bit less weighty).
But given the film sets up the modern-day heroines to be descendants of the past I have to wonder if anyone remembered the almost missed love connection between Snow Flower and Lily. They almost kissed and now their direct descendants are in the position of being similarly in love but without the means to communicate this. So, a woman's best lover will be the one she could be reincarnated into after giving birth to a smaller version of herself?
An odd, and perhaps unsettling, question to try and answer but this film is so caught up in an air of "pristine" it doesn't do anything interesting. Even a late film introduction by Hugh Jackman fails to spice up the surroundings. Though I have to admire Wayne Wang for one thing, he had quite a few opportunities to get Jackman to take his shirt off and did not take the easy out. In fact, Jackman stays remarkably clothed.
That this is still the sign of a bad movie is worrisome (even though I speak as the world's foremost expert and admirer of Hugh Jackman Shirtlessness). It's too serious, too "arty" and too interested in asking complex questions than it is in answering. "Friends forever" means little, and even less when a movie won't bother showing just what this entails.