A film should never exactly mimic its source material — books and films are entirely different media, and they require different strategies. But the drastic alterations to Lisa See’s compelling novel about the lifelong friendship between two women in 19th century China are unsettling, at least for fans of the original bestseller, and they detract a bit too much from the story See so artfully told.
The novel examines the bond between Lily and Snow Flower, paired as laotongs or “old sames,” a contracted friendship much like a marriage. The women communicate in nu shu, a secret language, writing their stories on a fan that passes back and forth between them, and their friendship bolsters them as they endure all the hardships life has to offer (which were considerable during a period of time in which foot binding was a required — and horrifically painful — tradition).
Wayne Wang’s adaptation includes Lily and Snow Flower, whose fates painfully shift over the years, as the once-poor Lily gains wealth and power through her prestigious marriage, while Snow Flower’s destiny heads in a different, less fortunate direction. But apparently the screenwriters decided that 19th century China was a bridge too far for contemporary audiences, and so the main story is clumsily framed within a less interesting, modern-day friendship about two women who have grown distant despite their closeness as teens. The idea isn’t necessarily terrible, but it’s not executed as well as it should be.
To make sure the audience understands the stories are supposed to be parallel, the actresses pull double duty: Li Bingbing plays Lily and also Nina, who’s on her way to establish a New York office for her company. Right before she’s due to leave, she learns her old friend Sophia (Gianna Jun, who also plays Snow Flower) has been in an accident and is in a coma.
Before her accident, Sophia was working on a book about Snow Flower (her great-several-times-over grandmother), a link to the past that feels forced and tenuous. The biggest problem is that the stories aren’t truly parallel: The rift between Nina and Sophia seems inconsequential compared to the brave sacrifice Snow Flower makes in severing her ties to Lily because she fears her low connections will drag Lily down.
Still, both actresses are expressive and excel at reflecting myriad emotions in subtle ways, and they slip perfectly into the skin of their screen personas, disappearing as easily into the period costumes as they do into contemporary garb. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan moves slowly, languidly; its art direction is often lovely, and despite their truncated screen time Lily and Snow Flower do make you care about their fates. But you would have cared more without all the distraction.
Cast: Gianna Jun, Li Bingbing, Vivian Wu, Russell Wong.
Director: Wayne Wang.
Screenwriters: Angela Workman, Ronald Bass, Michael Ray. Based on the novel by Lisa See.
Producers: Wendi Murdoch, Florence Sloan.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 120 minutes. Sexuality, violence/disturbing images, drug use. Opens Friday Aug. 8 at area theaters.