Synopsis: Inspired by the bestselling novel SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Lisa See the film tells the story of seven‐year‐old girls Snow Flower and Lily, in 19th century China, who had their feet bound at the same age and on the same day, which sealed their fates together as laotongs - bound together for eternity. Isolated in their marriages, they furtively communicate by taking turns writing in a secret language, nu shu, between the folds of a white silk fan. In a parallel story in present day Shanghai, the laotong’s descendants, Nina and Sophia, struggle to maintain the intimacy of their own childhood friendship in the face of demanding careers, complicated love lives, and a relentlessly evolving Shanghai. Drawing on the lessons of the past, the two modern women must understand the story of their ancestral connection, hidden from them in the folds of the antique white silk fan, or risk losing one another forever. What unfolds are two stories, generations apart, but everlasting in their universal notion of love, hope and friendship.
We had wanted very much to life this film. After all, it stars two of our (this reviewer’s, actually) favourite female stars – Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun. Li was wonderful in films like The Message (2009) and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010). Besides her almost perfect features, the Mainland Chinese is a notably good actress too. Jun (fans would know her as Ji hyun Jun) is famous for her role in 2001’s My Sassy Girl, and after 2009’s Blood: The Last Vampire, the South Korean actress seems to have made the decision to venture into Hollywood, complete with a new moniker.
Here, the two pretty artistes play protagonists in the film adaptation of Lisa See’s 2005 novel of the same name. The story takes place in two different eras. In 19th century China, Snow Flower and Lily are paired as laotong (literal English translation: old same) by a matchmaker who is also responsible for arranging their marriages. This seals their fate as bonded sisters who will go through thick and thin together. Fast forward to present day Shanghai where the two women’s descendents, Sophia and Nina, struggle with present day woes. Through circumstances and episodes, they learn about their ancestors’ close connection, and become laotongs in their own way.
We have never heard of the term “laotong” before this (practised in China’s Hunan, this is a relationship which bonds two girls together for eternity as kindred sisters), and we thought that nothing could go too wrong with these two luminous actresses coming together in a film directed by Wayne Wang. Wang, best known for his affecting look at the Chinese culture in The Joy Luck Club (1993), was supposed to have gotten the formula right with his latest work. With a story which transcends two eras to showcase the age old culture’s beauties and intricacies, this production could easily have won the hearts of both critics and audiences alike.
Alas, the 105 minute film ends up being a snail paced tale which never manages to convince its viewers the authenticity of the two girls’ close knitted relationship. Despite the elaborate art direction and the lovely cinematography, one cannot help but feel the story forcing itself onto you, instead of you experiencing the emotions through the screenplay. It also doesn’t help that the bond between the two protagonists are so close that one may just imagine them developing a romantic relationship.
As much as we love Li and Jun, the two just doesn’t seem to have much chemistry on screen. To be fair, both of them deliver wonderful performances here, with Li looking as beautiful as ever, and Jun exuding an alluring melancholy. They get to don both traditional Chinese costumes and modern outfits, and this is truly a feast for any male viewer’s eyes. There are countless close up shots are mesmerisingly lensed by Richard Wong. However, the result is an almost soulless depiction of a sisterhood that was supposed to be movingly poignant. It is most unfortunate that Rachel Portman’s gorgeous score does not help to elevate the emotions.
Elsewhere, we see other familiar Asian faces like Russell Wong (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), Archie Kao (the Chinese dude from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and Vivian Wu (The Founding of a Republic). But the biggest amusement you’d get from this film is from Hugh Jackman (Real Steel), who plays the “angmoh” boyfriend, and gets to sing and dance (in Mandarin too!) in a scene. Otherwise, this is one predictably slow moving vehicle which could have been so much better.
(Despite being beautifully filmed, this screen adaptation does not manage to bring the laotong spirit to life)