A Lifetime movie lobbed at the art house crowd, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a grandiose, often gobsmackingly ludicrous historical melodrama that makes even Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's most histrionic moments look restrained in comparison. Emotionally overwrought and fleetingly campy, any revelation Snow Flower has into the strange rituals of 19th-century China tends to pale next to its excessive lily gilding.
Nina (Li Bingbing) is the vision of a new China, a beautiful Louboutin-wearing high-powered executive about to be promoted to her Shanghai company's New York office. The screenwriters never bother to spell out exactly what Nina does, however, which only adds to the film's soap opera — details, fiddlesticks! — tone. When a bicycle accident leaves Nina's best friend Sophie (Gianna Jun) in a coma, Nina is compelled to stand vigil at her bedside, trying to piece together why her friend, with whom she has lost touch, wound up alone and helpless in a Shanghai hospital room. Nina commences with digging and finds that Sophie is a budding writer who has been penning a story about two girl friends Lily (Li Bingbing) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) in 19th-century imperial China who are similarly loving and then estranged.
Snow Flower's cultural hook is the fascinating ancient Chinese concept of laotong, a kindred spirit pact between female friends to stand by each other for life. That female matchmaking, done in girlhood, is a kind of parallel marriage that ostensibly allows for a depth of feeling, loyalty, and companionship to serve as consolation for arranged marriages with none of those qualities. Through fist-pounding husbands, dead children, armed uprisings, demonic mother-in-laws, and typhoid epidemics, Snow Flower and Lily remain friends, passing heartfelt messages written on silk fans, until a rift tears them apart. It's Bridesmaids without the comedy. Naturally, this has been interpreted rather tediously as a repressed erotic or Sapphic desire for some reviewers uncomfortable with the idea of an intense, devoted female friendship.
Director Wayne Wang has a very clunky hand with the material, giving contemporary Shanghai the look of a glossy AT&T commercial. Pacing is another problem, as the film cuts crazily from the present to the past and then lingers endlessly on moments of wordless longing between Snow Flower and Lily that drag the film to an embarrassing, grinding halt.
Snow Flower juggles not just two but three story lines, lending even more to the overburdened, overwrought texture of the film. In addition to the tale of Snow Flower and Lily and Nina and Sophie, there is — still with me? — the tale of teenage Nina and Sophie in the glory days of their relationship, which is meant to set the stage for their lifelong friendship but tends to be a narrative dead weight.
The passages in imperial China are Snow Flower's heart and soul, filled with shocking details like the grotesquely disfiguring practice of foot binding done on little girls to render them hobbled and helpless brides and the depiction of how girls are essentially shipped off like cattle into marriage. These sequences, dreamed up by screenwriters Angela Workman, Ron Bass, and Michael Ray working from Lisa See's 2005 bestselling novel, are a reminder of the cruelty of previous eras and give the film a solid core that the modern-day passages lack.
Apparently assuming their audience's tolerance for cultural exploration may not go too deep, this mostly English-language production seems to believe the historic story won't be engaging to modern viewers. Thus the tacked-on contemporary yarn. To his credit, a very campy, very game Hugh Jackman, as Sophie's boyfriend, makes an oddball cameo as a nightclub owner and torch singer in the modern-day sequences, a strange but weirdly compelling dose of fresh air in this hot house melodrama.
The film's politics are a bit of a muddle. The moderns seem too long to get back to the pure, devout friendship pacts of the past, which is, problematically, the same past that gave us arranged marriages and foot binding. Panning across the Shanghai landscape of old buildings bulldozed to make way for skyscrapers, Snow Flower expresses a romantic appeal for a dying China. Considering the gorgeous cinematography in the 19th-century story, you both understand the sentiment of wanting to hang on to a vanished past even if very little of how the past is depicted makes it seem worth clinging to.