Chinese-American director Wayne Wang has had an inconsistent career, jumping around from rough, idiosyncratic indie films like Smoke, The Center of the World and his 1982 debut Chan Is Missing to slick, faceless Hollywood productions like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday. Wang is best known for his work on 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, an acclaimed story of the relationships between four Chinese-American women and their immigrant mothers. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan finds Wang back in similar prestige territory, adapting a popular novel by Lisa See about the turbulent, lifelong friendship between two Chinese women.
See’s novel takes place in the 19th century, but Wang and screenwriters Angela Workman, Ron Bass and Michael K. Ray add a framing story set in the present, which gives the past sequences an entirely different context. The movie spends at least as much time in modern-day Shanghai as it does in the past, and thus the story of the sometimes troubled friendship between Lily (Li Bingbing) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) takes on the distant feel of an allegorical fable rather than a piece of history. In the present, Nina (also Li), a rising bank executive, discovers the story of Lily and Snow Flower when her own best friend, Sophia (also Jun), is in a coma following a car accident.
Through reading about Lily, a working-class girl elevated by a fortuitous marriage, and her relationship with Snow Flower, whose wealthy family is brought down by drug addiction and political upheaval, Nina comes to better appreciate her friendship with Sophia, and regret how it’s been neglected. The parallels between the two pairs of women, already enforced by having the same actresses play both sets of characters, are pretty simplistic, and the movie doesn’t take enough time to develop either duo extensively enough to give a sense of the importance of their friendship.
Li and Jun are awkwardly matched, and the movie seems torn between providing an educational experience for Westerners (large portions of the dialogue are in English, which neither lead actress appears comfortable with) and digging deeply into Chinese cultural tradition. It splits the difference and ends up respectable but bland, with all the surface trappings of a meaningful prestige picture but none of the emotional power.