Thursday, August 4, 2011

A tale of two women and two Chinas

Director Wayne Wang tackles a novel by Lisa See, but Snowflower and the Secret Fan seldom springs to life.
Novelist Lisa See has built an audience for books about the contradictions and conflicts that beset Chinese and Chinese-American women. See's 2005 novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, takes place in 19th century China, where foot-binding and subservience were part of many women's lives. The novel focuses on Snow Flower and Lily, two women who are a laotong pair, women united by an irrevocable bond of sisterhood. In director Wayne Wang's big-screen adaptation, the story of the two 19th Century women who retain such an enduring bond is set against a contemporary tale about two women who share a similar connection. Wang alternates between contemporary Shanghai and 19th century China in ways that don't really work, despite some adventurous choices. An example: Snow Flower and her modern counterpart both are played by Gianna Jun. Lily and her modern equivalent are also played by one actress, Bingbing Li. Wang may be trying to show us how tradition resonates in a present that would be unrecognizable to the movie's 19th Century characters, but Snow Flower represents a somewhat leaden misfire from a director who has made both energetic indies (Life Is Cheap ... but Toilet Paper Is Expensive) and melodramatic mainstream movies (The Joy Luck Club). In what seems like a desperate attempt to add box-office appeal, Hugh Jackman turns up as the lover of one of the contemporary women. He doesn't fit in. The past and present scenes don't mesh well, either. By dividing his movie in two, Wang seems to have weakened both halves of what could have been a much richer experience.

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