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DVD Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

November 1, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – A 20th Century Fox Release

http://www.foxsearchlight.com/snowflower

DVD Release Date: November 1st, 2011

Rated PG for mature theme

Running time: 104 minutes

Wayne Wang (dir.)

Angela Workman (screenplay)

Ron Bass (screenplay)

Michael K. Ray (screenplay)

Based on the novel by Lisa See

Rachel Portman (music)

Bingbing Li as Nina / Lily

Gianna Jun as Snow Flower / Sophia

Archie Kao as Sebastian

Hugh Jackman as Arthur

Our reviews below:

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan DVD Review By John C.

*1/2 (out of 4)

In ancient China, Nina (Bingbing Li) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) were brought together as laotong – sworn sisters for life.  Fast forward to 2010 and their ancestors Lily and Sophia (also played by Li and Jun) share an inseparable bond.  The stories play out in unison with blatantly obvious visual metaphors, and then Hugh Jackman shows up.  He’s only there for a few minutes, delivering his lines and a brief musical performance with a confused look on his face.  He really doesn’t belong here, but lets just say that I haven’t laughed this hard at a melodrama in a long time.

The editing between scenes looks as if it were done by a chainsaw, making it feel like we are watching two mediocre TV movies that have been pushed together into a 104-minute running time.  The performances are just okay when the actresses are speaking Chinese, but are unbearably stilted during the modern English scenes.  Rachel Portman’s musical score is nice, but overblown, and the character development so rushed that any emotional resonance is muted to the point of indifference.  A disaster on multiple levels, watching Snow Flower and the Secret Fan feels more like witnessing talented director Wayne Wang desperately try to keep his head above water.

The Blu-ray includes a 29-minute ‘making of’ featurette.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan DVD Review by Erin V.  

*1/2 (out of 4)

Based on the book of the same name by Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of two young women in the 1800’s, told through flashbacks by two other women in present day.  The two women in the past are united as Laotong – sworn sisters for life.  The arrangement provides them each with a confidant as their arranged marriages with their husbands don’t provide the emotional support they need.  The stuff that takes place in the 1800’s is interesting at times, although the present day stuff (the two women in present day seem to be the descendants of the other women) is pretty clichéd and bland.  The funniest scene in the whole film does take place in present day though – in which Hugh Jackman inexplicably appears to do a song and dance number in Chinese, with an Australian accent.  And this is in a drama.

On the technical side of things, the same discrepancies between the two era stories is abundant, with the present day stuff filmed haphazardly it seems, as though the camera was just placed in the room without much thought, vs. the slightly more capable filming of the 19th century stuff.  Overall, the film ends up very uneven, with a few interesting moments, a few laughs, but not much to connect us to what is supposed to be a serious drama.  Ultimately, it’s a disappointment.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan DVD Review By Nicole

** (out of 4)

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan tells two stories about close platonic friendships between women throughout the ages.  The first story is based on the novel of the same name by Lisa See.  Taking place in early 19th century China, it tells the story of two girls born on the same day, named Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Bing Bing Li).  We hear of the torturous and mutilating act of foot binding, (not graphically shown, but depicted through folley), as well as the abuse the women often received from their arranged husbands.

However, another kind of arranged relationship brought the women comfort.  That was the vow of laotong, an arrangement between families that would have girls adopt each other as sisters.  They would be taught a special language called Nu Shu, which would be written on fans.  Only women knew this language, which allowed them to address their concerns to each other.  The second story follows two modern women named Nina (Bing Bing Li) and Sophia (Gianna Jun), and their friendship in present day Shanghai.  When Sophia winds up in a coma after a cycling accident, Nina stays by her side, looking back on their lives as well as their research into Snow Flower and Lily’s past.

Personally, I found the 19th century storyline to be intriguing.  The costumes, scenery and music are beautiful, and the friendship between Snow Flower and Lily is sincere and believable.  The modern-day storyline merely feels tacked on, with pieces of the first story shortened to fill in the modern portions.  The modern-day friendship between Nina and Sophia feels more clichéd and contrived.  But the one thing in the modern story that I found unintentionally hilarious was Hugh Jackman as Sophia’s boyfriend, singing in Chinese.  I would recommend renting Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but skip through all the modern segments – save for Jackman’s number – and just watch the 19th century parts.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan DVD Review By Maureen

** (out of 4)

Told through parallel stories, one in the 19th century and the other in the 21st, director Wayne Wang brings to life Lisa See’s best-selling novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  In the movie version, the 19th century Chinese women, Lily (Bing Bing Li) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) have laotongs since childhood.  This special bond was arranged so that the women would have soul sisters and another family in addition to their marital family.  The women would have a bond that no man could ever understand.  In the parallel story, two of Lily and Snowflower’s descendants, Nina (Bing Bing Li) and Sophia (Gianna Jun) have a close modern-day female relationship.  The movie goes back and forth between the two centuries and stories.

The sequences in 19th century China are the strong points of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  There is an authentic feel to the sets and costuming.  Both lead actors are believable in their roles.  The weaker portion of the movie takes place in modern-day Shanghai.  Somehow the bond between Nina and Sophia doesn’t have the same emotional impact as that of Lily and Snow Flower.  It doesn’t help that the frequent transitions between the 19th and 21st century scenes feel choppy.  And as much as I admire Hugh Jackman, I have to wonder what was the point of his five-minute cameo as Sophia’s nightclub singing husband.  Somehow Hugh singing a country and western song in Mandarin just didn’t work.  Still, those interested in 19th century Chinese culture may find Snow Flower and the Secret Fan worth checking out on DVD.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan DVD Review By Tony

**1/2 (out of 4)

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is adapted from the novel by Lisa See about two girls in 19th century China linked as laotong–eternal sisters. The film directed by Wayne Wang includes a pair of contemporary laotong played by the same actors (Bingbing Li and Gianna Jun), who may be descended from their earlier counterparts.  As the film opens in Shanghai, Nina (Li) postpones a business relocation to New York to be at the bedside of her laotong Sophia (Jun), in a coma from a road accident. Finding Sophia’s manuscript of the story of Lily (Li) and Snow Flower (Jun), Nina begins to read it. The film alternates between the ancient laotong story and flashbacks of the somewhat parallel events shared by their modern counterparts.

Nina and Sophia had met as teenagers when Sophia’s family moved from Korea to Shanghai and her stepmother hired Nina as a Mandarin tutor. When the stepmother kicked Nina out as a bad influence, the two girls had themselves declared laotong in a contract written in the laotong code called nu shu. Having lost touch after a series of setbacks Nina has to piece together what happened to Sophia leading up to the accident.  We first see Lily as a seven year old girl having her feet bound to make her eligible for a good marriage. The matchmaker chooses Snow Flower as Lily’s laotong, a more sacred bond in its way than matrimony. Even when separated by their families, laotong can always communicate by nu shu messages written in the vanes of a fan sent back and forth between them. We follow them through their eventful lives until one of them dies.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an uneven film. The older story is interesting historically and despite some melodramatic moments is reasonably well done. Though the modern scenes are relatively brief, they take time away from the ancient story on which the original book was based, and are embarrassingly bad by comparison. With Shanghai in ruins undergoing rapid redevelopment, executives in suits and garishly dressed women in ultra high heels (a modern counterpart of bound feet) frequenting tawdry Chinese pop music clubs, director Wayne Wang clumsily tries to suggest things haven’t improved much over the old days. Attempting to act in English makes the same actresses who are good in the older segments look really inept. The unintended result is derisive laughter, reaching a climax with the sudden appearance of Hugh Jackman as a lounge singer. Apparitions to Nina of Snow Flower and Lily’s sedan chair in city traffic are just weird. Finally, the animated images over the closing credits reminiscent of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam leave us laughing all the more, and not in a good way.

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Consensus: Although Snow Flower and the Secret Fan boasts some admirable production design during the 19th century scenes of female friendship, it is weakened by a needlessly melodramatic and poorly done sub-plot taking place in modern Shanghai.  ** (Out of 4)

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