In trying to give a modern twist to "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan's" bestselling story of women and friendship in 19th century China, director Wayne Wang has been tripped up by his chick-lit tendencies. He should have trusted that author Lisa See's moving portrait of two girls bound by fate, custom and circumstance (as tightly and at times as painfully as the cloth that wraps and warps their feet) would be enough. Instead, he's weighted down the big-screen version with a couple of 21st century Sex in Shanghai-styled BFFs who've had a nasty falling-out.
The film starts with the Shanghai gals and their issues. Nina (Li Bingbing) is involved in a big corporate banking deal and Sophia (Gianna Jun) is in a bad bike accident. The deal would send Nina to New York; the bike incident lands Sophia in the hospital. Nina's choice — whether to stay and repair her friendship or go find her future — drives the rest of the movie.
It also results in the discovery of a manuscript that unlocks the story of Snow Flower and becomes the bridge to See's original tale, which is where Wang should have stayed all along. His vision of the old days and old ways trump the contemporary additions at every turn. It is a rich, ancient world both exotic and erotic and made even more seductive by director of photography Richard Wong, who makes the most of the opportunity to shoot in China.
The central story turns on Snow Flower and Lily, who were paired as laotong — the formal name for such arranged friendships between girls — when they were just children in the early 1800s. It follows them through the trials of their marriages, also arranged, plus forced separations, class differences and rebel uprisings. Throughout it all they stay in touch by sending messages written in nu shu, the secret language of women, on the folds of a fan.
Nina discovers all of this as she reads Sophia's manuscript and reflects on the ways in which their friendship compares with Lily's and Snow Flower's. If the script didn't make the parallels clear enough, Jun plays both Snow Flower and Sophia while Li portrays Lily and Nina. Despite the distance of a couple of centuries, the characters are similar — Snow Flower and Sophia softer somehow, Lily and Nina more pragmatic.
The present is a weird mix of corporate gamesmanship, family conflicts and high-end club hopping. It gets weirder still when Hugh Jackman turns up as Sophia's ex, an Aussie nightclub impresario taking on Shanghai with an embarrassing lounge act.
Ironically it was Wang's choice to have screenwriters Ron Bass ("The Joy Luck Club," "Waiting to Exhale") and Michael K. Ray (Wang's "The Princess of Nebraska") add a modern-day layer to screenwriter Angela Workman's more traditional approach to the novel; Wang said he feels more comfortable with the contemporary. Certainly his films — "Maid in Manhattan" with Jennifer Lopez, "Last Holiday" with Queen Latifah — suggest that. He often comes back to Chinese issues, with his 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" standing as his best, most put-together effort.
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. When Wang turns to the past — from the look of the film itself to the performances of Li and Jun — the film, and the story, come alive.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexuality, violence/disturbing images and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, in English and Chinese with English subtitles
Playing: In selected theatersCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun