Back at the beginning of the year, there were a number of films I was really looking forward to, and so far each and every one of them has disappointed. This was one of them, and to be honest, I already knew it was going to be a let down. Reviews had been mediocre at best, and frankly, when I can get the DVD from the USA just before it even gets a UK cinema release, then things are not usually positive. But maybe, just maybe, everyone was wrong, and this adaptation of a novel I rather enjoyed would actually turn out to be ok!
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” decides to use two different stories over three different timelines. At the core of it, is the story written in the novel, about women in early 19th Century rural China, particularly the journey of Lily (Li Bing-bing), a poor girl whose status is elevated by the almost perfect binding of her feet, her elevation by a fortuitous Laotong match with a girl named Snow Flower (Jun Ji-hyun) and a marriage that has produced sons. Over time she survives poverty, disease, and uprising and the difficulties created by her friend’s less fortunate life. Its an interesting story, and would make a fascinating and lush historical film.
The problem is, the filmmakers felt for some reason this was not enough. So this story is told via the story written by a modern Korean girl called Sophia (Also Jun Ji-hyun) who had entered a more modern version of a Laotong relationship with Nina (also Li Bing Bing). So we get the story of their childhood friendship, along with the present day tale – where Sophia and Nina have become estranged, and an accident to Sophia brings them back together. Except Sophia is now in a coma, leaving Nina attempting to piece together not only the story that her friend has written, but also what has happened in the time since their friendship broke down.
There are two fundamental problems here. Firstly, the Novel has enough content for a nigh-on two hour movie. By adding all the extra story (which I assume is trying to draw parallels between the struggles of modern and ancient Chinese women), it means we get some kind of bullet point version of the novel. Most of the main story beats are here, but we get nothing of the character development. The Novel is narrated by Lily, and it is through her we gain understanding of the rules and mores of the era. Here we have nothing. In fact, if I had not read the novel, I am not sure I would have even understood half of what was going on in these flashbacks. Secondly, the modern day story is hardly worth our time, its is underdeveloped and to be honest, utterly dull. Nothing in it really has the same impact as the ancient events – cheating on an exam hardly counts as the same trauma as a family ravaged by disease.
Fundamentally – you never get any sense of the depth of feeling that is built between the two girls. You never really understand how Lily has risen and how Snow Flower has fallen. And the core moment in the novel, of Snow Flowers rejection of Lily (and the reasons why) is really stupidly handled, and is done in a way that lacks and sort of revelation. The modern day story is even weaker, and does not even bother to give us any sense of reconciliation, despite the final scene.
I could list all the things the film ignores – Lily’s relationship with her Mother, her Mother-in-law, with her children, the way she she’s Snow Flower’s husband in a new light once a tragedy strikes. Bits of it are there, but it is realised pretty woefully. Whole concepts described in the Novel are hardly explored, critically the whole idea of the Nüshu language only understood by women and indeed the importance of the Secret Fan itself.
Li Bing Bing is actually very good in all her various roles, and Jun Ji-hyun does OK, but she seems glaringly underwritten in her guise as the titular Snow Flower and as she spends one timeline in a coma, she has little to offer. A strange cameo by Hugh Jackman is fine, but seems a little out of place, and no other character is really given any time to shine whatsoever (other than Vivian Wu’s Aunt – who thinking about it as I write this has had her character moved from the Ancient China setting to the present day, and only seems to be an exposition device).
Is it an awful film? No of course not – it has at least one strong performance, the soundtrack is lovely and the ancient China scenes are beautiful. Its failing is that it did not have the courage to stick to the source material, probably scared that a film in Chinese, starring relative unknowns (in the West) just was not going to pull in the crowds. To be fair, they were probably correct, but by golly – why even bother? At the end of the day, it is pretty, but also pretty boring. Not Recommended. Go read the novel.