Thursday, August 4, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB ()  Roger Ebert (2 stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

REVIEW REVISED to incorporate new information on Oct 12, 2011:

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan [2011] (directed by Wayne Wang and co-written by Angela Workman, Ronald Bass and Michael K. Ray based on the novel by the same name by Lisa See) is a story about two sets of “sworn sisters” in a type of relationship called laotong in Lisa See’s novel.  

The film begins at a restaurant in contemporary Shanghai with a group of business-people celebrating the finalization of plans by their firm to open a new office in New York.  The boss (played by Russell Wong) notes that just like the restaurant where they are sitting is adorned with butterflies, so too their company is about to transform into something new and announces that he’s sending his two best people, Sebastian (played by Archie Kao) and Nina (played by Bingbing Li) to New York to open the office.  As the dinner continues, the film shifts to a young woman Sophia (played by Gianna Jun) on a motor-scooter, who tries to call someone with her cell phone.  Unable to reach the person, she hangs-up, turns on her motor-scooter and heads-off.  Shortly afterward, we hear the sounds of an accident. Later that night, when Nina is already sleeping at home, with Sebastian sleeping at her side, she gets a phone call from a hospital.  Apparently that there’s been an accident and Nina was the past person that the last person that the woman (who had been driving a motor-scooter) had called prior to the accident.  Nina immediately gets up, dresses and rushes to the hospital where she finds Sophia badly injured and in a coma.

The film then switches to 1997.  We see teenaged Nina and Sophia dancing together to a pop tune in a relatively upscale Shanghi apartment belonging to Sophia’s step-mother Mrs Liao (played by Hu Quin Yun).  Mrs Liao comes home and is irritated at the music being danced to by the two teenage girls and puts on “something more appropriate.”  We find out that Nina had been hired by Mrs Liao and her husband rising businessman/stock broker, Mr Liao (played by Zhong Lu) to tutor Sophia, who had come from Korea (probably North Korea) after the death of her mother.  We soon find out that Nina comes from a more working-class Shanghai family composed of her and her parents, Mr and Mrs Liu (played by Shi Ping Cao and Ruija Zhang), who live in a much more modest flat.   Despite differing social circumstances and differing intelligences, the two – Nina and Sophia – become very close friends.

One day, a younger aunt of Sophia’s (played by Vivian Wu) comes over.  This aunt is something of a Chinese feminist/historian and artist.  She had come-over to the Liao’s home to get from Mrs Liao a number of items left over from a great-great-grandmother who lived in the 1800s and died in the early 1900s.   Among the items that she came for was a seemingly impossibly tiny embroidered shoe and a fan with mysterious writing on it.  The teenage girls look at both items (and particularly the shoe) with amazement.  The aunt explained that up until the twentieth century, Chinese girls’ feet were bound at a young age in such a way that even in adulthood, their feet remained unnaturally small.  This was done because it was popularly believed in traditional Chinese culture that the more perfectly small a woman’s feet were, the prized she was in marriage.  The aunt explained that the procedure was, yes, unimaginably painful and served to diminish a woman’s capacity to live independently of males. 

The young aunt then explained the writing on the fan.  The script on the fan, she told the girls was called Nu Shu (or literally women’s writing) and that this was a secret language used by women in sworn relationships called laotong to communicate with each other.  The aunt explained that marriage in traditional Chinese society was primarily done “for men’s reasons – economic and to produce sons.”  In contrast, a laotong relationship entered into by young girls at a time when their foot-binding procedures were nearing completion waw entered into for “women’s reasons” or a life-long emotional bond.  The two teenagers, Nina and Sophia then decide that _they_ want to enter into such a relationship... The aunt, finds “an expert” who writes out an informal contract (interestingly enough on the cover of the record that Mrs Liao did not like) and that was that.  They were now “sworn sisters for life...”

The rest of the story that follows is an interplay between Nina’s and Sophia’s laotong relationship taking place in our time, and the laotong relationship of Sophia’s great-great-grand mother named Snow Flower (by Gianna Jun who also plays Sophia) and her laotong Lili (Bingbing Li who also plays Nina).

In both cases Sophia/Snow Flower and Nina/Lili encounter all kinds of trials and reversals in life.  Lili like Nina grew-up initially at a lower station than Snow Flower/Sophia.  But Lili’s feet proved more perfect than Snow Flower’s and Nina was more ambitious and intelligent than Sophia.  So both Lily/Nina rose to greater prominence during their lives than Snow Flower/Sophia.  In contrast Snow Flower, whose feet were “less perfect” ended up marrying a “mere” butcher, even though she enjoyed more women friends than Lili.  Sophia’s economic fortunes also decreased.  She apparently never got into the university (there’s a scene in the movie in which Nina really tries to help her, even to the point of trying to take her entrance exams for her) and her step-parent’s economic fortunes collapsed with a crash in the Shanghai stock market.  Nevertheless, she also seemed to have a richer (if somewhat more scandalous) personal life, having at one point an Australian lounge singer boyfriend named Arthur (played by Hugh Jackman) who Nina did not approve of.

The movie ends with a rather beautiful monologue by Nina talking about the changes that occur during the course of one’s  life  – and honestly imagine the number of changes that China has gone through in the last 50 years from the chaos of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s-70s, to the gradual liberalization that started under Mao’s successor Deng Xiaopeng that took a radical turn in 1989 with the Tiananmen Massacre, to today’s headlong rush toward unprecedented market-based prosperity, even as the Chinese Communist Party retains strict political control – and the need to look in the midst of such change for something that is permanent (like a laotong friendship). 

It’s a remarkable ending to the movie, and _very_ Eastern/Buddhist. where the primary tenet of Buddhist philosophy is that of samsara or “all things change.”  Indeed, it’s worth watching the closing credits of this film, because as the credits roll, this change of which Nina talks out graphically before one’s eyes – first there are nothing but rice fields, then a town of huts is built, than those huts are replaced by more permanent pagoda like structures.  Those are replaced by European looking buildings and finally those are knocked down to be replaced by skyscrapers.  In the meantime, a statue by a river keeps getting torn down or blown-up and replaced by something or someone new.

All in all, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan makes for a very nice reflection on the value of bonded friendship.

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