Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Dir. Wayne Wang

[Fox Searchlight; 2011]

Styles: drama
Others: Anywhere But Here, Maid in Manhattan, The Joy Luck Club, The Fountain

Apparently, in Chinese tradition, an early-childhood ceremony called laotong inextricably bonds two otherwise disparate women, so that throughout their adult lives they owe one another complete emotional fidelity. This is a nice idea, the abiding principle of undying friendship. If someone were to turn it into a movie, they’d want to make sure it was a sincere and somber and beautifully shot study of close emotions.

Wayne Wang did it with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but it’s not sincere so much as a con game where sincerity is the bait — and not the good, Hitchcock/Mamet kind of con game. In this movie, the audience is forced to keep their eyes on the quickly unraveling plot as Wang absconds with their emotional investment, presumably back to Hollywood, where he may be preparing Last Holiday 2.

We start in modern-day Shanghai. A distracted-looking young woman, Sophia (Gianna Jun), has a motorbike accident and is taken to the hospital. Her laotong, Nina (Bingbing Li), is rousted out of bed by a nurse because she was the last person Sophia called before the crash. Nina can hardly believe Sophia would have called her, and watching her laid up in bed and unconscious causes a slew of sisterly guilt. Fortunately, when Nina discovers a book Sophia has written — a historical drama about the travails of a pair of laotong sisters in 19th-century China — it provides her with the excuse she needed to get out of the hospital and dig into her friend’s past.

Flashing back and forth (and back again) between modern-day and 19th-century Shanghai, Snow Flower has Nina do a lot of reneging on her laotong vows. Sophia’s book often seems to play out her fantasy for the way she and Nina might have been sisters. Yet as we watch, trying to keep track of the direct parallels between Sophia’s book and the “real” story, the inconsistencies pile up into downright implausibility.

Snow Flower is Wang’s earnest but excruciating return to the cinema of his roots. He’s a native Hong Konger who made a name for himself early in the 1980s as a director of distinctly modern Chinese movies. A decade later he teamed with the great American novelist Paul Auster to make two American indie comedies, Smoke and Blue in the Face, which to this day have a significant low-key cult status. Around 1995, Wang was a notable, idiosyncratic filmmaker, someone to be watched.

Then he shot for the mainstream. For 15 or so years, he’s been putting out vehicles for starlets and dogs — Anywhere But Here, Maid in Manhattan, Because of Winn-Dixie, Last Holiday — that seem aimed at erasing any claim he once had to an Ang Lee level of Chinese-crossover-auteurism.

Now Wang’s in his 60s and his career appears to be steered back towards some kind of would-be artistic renaissance. Snow Flower is, when considered in its best light, a slow movie about the eternal bonds formed through traditional Chinese culture. It’s irritatingly schematic and focuses on all the wrong moments — like when surprise guest star Hugh Jackman distractedly shows up as Sophia’s Australian boyfriend — but at least it continues the succession of Wang’s recent films that shy away from big budgets and Queen Latifah.

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