When I heard that I would be reviewing Snow Flower and the Secret Fan I wondered what on earth the thing would be about. Then I found out it was about sisters in 19th C. china, and I knew exactly what the plot was going to be—ninja sisters. Never mind that any sort of historically accurate ninja film would have to be set in Feudal Japan, I was convinced. But this movie isn’t about ninja sisters (as rad as that would have been). This is one of those beautiful movies that are supposed to make you cry while also educating you in such a way as to feel as if you’ve actually been there and can truly identify with these women—it’s like an attempt at the Chinese chick-flick version of Rocky.
The complexity of this film is pretty fancy-pants. I remember being annoyed in the second act because I felt that it dragged slightly, but the darn threads of this story are so tightly woven and dependent upon one another, I think I should chillax about the drag and realize that the surprisingly minimal amount of drag is freaking amazing considering how many new characters they have to introduce mid-film due to the historical time-line. So yes, it did drag, but minimally. I consider that if they had simply added in a sub-plot through-line while they were establishing these new characters, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. As always, the structural basics of screenwriting are key, even if your story is adapted or fancy-pants.
So, what’s it about? Let’s get right to it. Things open up on an extravagant party where Nina (Bingbing Li) is celebrating her very impressive promotion with her boss and co-workers. An unknown girl who we will later learn is Sophia (Gianna Jun) stands outside the large building where Nina’s party is being held. Sophia attempts to call Nina, but she doesn’t get through. She hops on her bike and rides away, but before she can get very far, she is hit by a taxi. Nina gets a midnight phone call from the hospital. Sophia is there, in a coma. Now starts the trifecta aspect of this film. We will relive Nina’s and Sophia’s interconnected past through the flashback memories of Nina. We will also relive the interconnected past of Sophia’s distant relative Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and her “life-sister” Lily (Binbing Li) through Nina’s experience of reading Sophia’s historical fiction manuscript that she had amongst her things. As these two pasts progress, Nina is also trying to be there for the unconscious Sophia by finding out what truly happened in the three months when they weren’t speaking with each other even though they (just like Snow Flower and Lily) were also “life-sisters.” Yes, it is totally complex.
The plot drag may be forgiven, but I can’t disregard a particular flaw in this film that seemed rather odd to me. The “cry moments” were intermittent and spotty. Usually films like this seem to have an emotional orchestration behind them. It’s as if the film maker or writer (or both) can play the audience like a cello and bring us along to peaks and valleys of feeling. You see this in films like The Red Violin or Eat Drink Man Woman, but you don’t see it in this film. The cry moments are definitely there, but they feel randomly strewn about. I was distracted by this around the fourth or fifth time when I got a little nervous that I was somehow becoming bi-polar or having a mini-breakdown. Then I realized it was the odd placement of emotion within the film. Again, this problem is very specific to structural screenwriting basics.
A mentor taught me when I was just a wee baby screenwriter that there are set emotional points that you have to hit in order for a film to seem “right.” There are different forms for different genres, but the idea is the same. Orchestrate the emotion so that subconsciously everything flows, thus taking the undistracted audience fully into the aesthetic world you’ve created. Of course these forms can be manipulated to the preference of the film makers (and should be), but they should also be heeded as helpful suggestions because the only reason these techniques exist is because they work. Don’t let the audience get ripped out of the story by a distracting offense.
This film did get better in the second half. I imagine that’s because they had to sweat to get all those pay offs that were set up in the first half. This will not be a problem for you if you are in the mood for a brooding emotional drama. Because it does in fact brood, and then it gets emotionally fulfilling, albeit jumpily emotionally fulfilling (i.e. those randomly timed cry moments). This movie ain’t bad. The only problem with it is that it was shot as if it was a novel as opposed to shooting it like it was a script. The off-kilter-ness stems from that.
Oh, and one last thing. Watch out for Hugh Jackman’s weird bit-part/cameo about two-thirds in to the film. I guess he’s trying to stretch again, but I felt he needed a bigger part to justify the star power he brought to this otherwise subdued drama. Don’t expect any big moment or reveal from his character because it isn’t there. He just sort of fizzes out and disappears.