This review is based on Judge Roman Martel's historical novel Lethal Panda and the Secret Decoder Ring.
"The world is always changing. Every day it's changing."
Can director Wayne Wang bring the same emotional connection to the adaption of the novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as he did to The Joy Luck Club?
Facts of the Case
The story begins in present day Shanghai, where Nina (Bingbing Li, The Forbidden Kingdom) is awarded a promotion from the bank where she works. This promotion includes a relocation to New York, and she doesn't seem to happy about it. Outside we see a young woman named Sophia (Gianna Jun, Blood: The Last Vampire) as she rides away from the bank building on a bicycle and is promptly hit by a taxi.
We discover that Nina and Sophia used to be the closest of friends, but a mysterious falling out separated the two. Nina feels guilty about it, and now that Sophia is in a coma in the hospital, she attempts to piece together her friends life for the past few years. Nina discovers that Sophia has been writing a novel, one that is about two girls living in 19th century China.
One girl, born to a poor family is named Lily (Li again). The other born to a rich family is named Snow Flower (Jun again). Because the two were born under compatible astrological signs and they had their feet bound on the same day, they are brought together to become laotong, or sworn sisters. The two try to remain friends even as they grow up, and the path of their lives turns everything around—with Lily's fortunes rising as Snow Flower's seemingly fall.
As Nina reads this historical novel, she can't help but see the connections to her own relationship with Sophia. Will the novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan provide the clue to why these closest of friends were doomed to separate?
What we have here is a story of two women who are sisters in all but blood. Nina and Sophia are bound not just by friendship but also by the connections to Lily and Snow Flower. The older story is based on historical artifacts kept by Sophia's family, and include the secret fan of the title. The two stories mirror and support each other, providing insight to all four characters.
This type of storytelling is very effective in a novel, because the author gets plenty of room to flesh out the moments and really get in the characters' heads. Director Wayne Wang does a good job adapting Lisa See's novel and giving us enough time with all four women and their worlds in a fairly tight 104 minutes. While it does seem to really hurtle through the 19th century story at times, the thematic and plot connections to the current day story make sense.
Li and Jun do most of the heavy lifting in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Both women bring slightly different touches to the two characters they play. We see obvious connections between the past and present identities, but also see enough differences.
If there is any drawback to the acting it's the fact that both women perform the majority of the present storyline dialogue in English. As a result, the acting suffers and the performances seem much less natural. But scenes in Mandarin are excellent.
Technically, the film is well executed. The lighting and cinematography are lovely, providing rich colors for the historical portions and softer, cooler lighting for the modern sequences. Wang also uses some interesting framing and shot set ups, creating moments that mirror each other across story lines. He gets a lot of milage out of Rachel Portman's rich musical score, which supports and accents the film.
Fox provides Snow Flower and Secret Fan with an excellent Blu-ray release. The 2.35:1/1080p transfer allows us to see the gorgeous lighting and depth of the shadows in key scenes. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is well balanced, with the score never overpowering the dialogue. The subtitles for the scenes in Mandarin are clear and well paced. For extras you get an excellent half hour long featurette. It goes from the creation of the novel through the production of the film. There's plenty of candid interviews with writer Lisa See and the cast and crew of the film, detailing some of the more interesting challenges to the production.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I admit Snow Flower and the Secret Fan didn't connect completely with me. Part of it may be because I've never been a sworn sister and had trouble identifying with the depth of feeling the two pairs of women had for each other. Also, the switching back and forth between the two stories wasn't handled quite as well as it could have been. Instead of pulling me in, I kept feeling like I was being jarred out. I also found the historical story a bit more interesting (that's the history buff in me), and was a bit disappointed when the modern story kicked in; always a danger when attempting this kind of story structure.
The featurette revels that the novel only dealt with the historical portion of the story. It was the director who wanted to add the modern element to the story and helped create the current screenplay. Knowing that, I am impressed this new material works works so well thematically with the source material.
I will report that my wife really enjoyed the film and didn't have any trouble with the flip flopping between the tales. So, I'm thinking that the issue is more with me not being the target audience for this film.
This is an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys this type of story. And even if you aren't sure about it, the cinematography and historical portions of the story are very engaging. The Blu-ray is the way to view it. Recommended for anyone looking for a sworn sister drama.
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