BY EDDIE KIM – Some movies are easy to understand. You walk in, listen to plot points get explained, and/or see stuff blow up, and/or watch lead protagonists fall in love, etc. And at the end of the allotted 90 minutes or so, you walk out, more or less entertained and more or less satisfied, but certainly not confused or floating in ambiguity.
Mainstream media conglomerates like to produce these sorts of movies because they’re mostly fun but, maybe more importantly, mostly easy to watch.
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is not this sort of film. It reveals its inner workings slowly, deliberately, and by the time it’s over it feels a little like a drunken hug received from a crush: you know what happened, but it’s hard to make perfect sense of it.
The story (loosely adapted from Lisa See’s novel of the same name) is a deceptively straightforward one. It tells of two pairs of girls, one depicted in the past – 19th century China – and another in the present-day Shanghai. In the former are two girls named Snow Flower (portrayed by Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bingbing), who are bonded together for eternity as “laotong”, a vow of never-ending love and sisterhood.
In the present is another pair: Nina (Bingbing) and Sophia (Jun), who also sign a contract of “laotong” and vow to never forget their connection.
Unfortunately, time does curious things to people, and when Nina and Sophia’s relationship starts to falter, it requires an examination of the past to find an answer in the present.
The decision to have the leading women portray characters from both of the eras is a clever – and critical – touch by director Wayne Wang (“Joy Luck Club”). He weaves in and out between the parallel stories throughout “Snow Flower”, sometimes to flawless effect, other times clumsily. There are moments where the switch from ancient China to modern Shanghai feels jarring, like a forced moment.
Much of the film, however, runs much like a well-crafted thriller, in that all the interweaving serves a sincere purpose. The scenes of the 19th century relationship play off scenes from the present and reveal nuggets of meaning in moments that alone would be somewhat pointless. When Wang gets it right, it’s beautiful to watch.
It doesn’t hurt that Jun and Bingbing bring some seriously impressive performances to the screen, both in the 19th century setting as well as in modern Shanghai. “Snow Flower” is a film that almost entirely relies on an emotional connection with the audience, and it’s hard to imagine any other pair pulling it off more effectively. The sisterly bond conveyed between Bingbing and Jun is palpable, to say the least.
What will be up for debate, however, is the way the movie often wades into melodrama. Does it feel real, or simply too much? Frankly, it’s hard to say. After all, “Snow Flower” is a tale of love, and loss, and suffering, both solitary and shared – melodramatics have their place here.
At times, “Snow Flower” chooses to linger on the nature of blurred tears and hurt with a sort of artful insistence that will either touch your heart or make you want to sigh in exasperation. It entirely depends on your mindset, experience and how willing you are to be taken into the world of Lily and Snow Flower, and Nina and Sophia.
That last bit is key, really. It would be easy, on face value, to write “Snow Flower” off as another histrionic movie with a target audience of sappy women. Without a doubt, it’s not a film for everyone, and isn’t the definition of a “fun” movie. And definitely don’t expect a faithful rendition of Lisa See’s popular novel – the film does somewhat of an injustice to the scope and tone of the book.
But with a little bit of careful attention and a willingness to mull over the film’s criss-crossed story, “Snow Flower” can become something much more. As the final frame washes away, it’s hard not to wonder: to wonder about eternal love, sacrifice, friendship, and what the film’s conclusion says about it all.
Unlike most summer blockbusters, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” has the ability to linger with you for a long while after the walk out of the theater. This is maybe even more so the case if you choose to view it alone, which could be a good idea.
All things considered, the fact that “Snow Flower” can provoke thought and deep emotion is a special thing.
It seems that depends on whether or not you give it a chance to.