Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gianna Jun, Li Bingbing, Vivian Wu, Jiang Wu, Russell Wong, Archie Kao, Hugh Jackman
Written by: Angela Workman, Ronald Bass, Michael K. Ray, based on a novel by Lisa See
Directed by: Wayne Wang
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexuality, violence/disturbing images and drug use
Running Time: 120
Date: 06/24/2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Sister Pact

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Chinese Box, Maid in Manhattan, Last Holiday, etc.) follows in that proud tradition of men who make women's pictures, sharing company with Douglas Sirk, George Cukor, William Wyler, Frank Borzage, and (sometimes) Vincente Minnelli. But Wang adds his specific cross-cultural blend, often looking at the miscommunication between different cultures as well as different generations.

His new film, based on a novel by Lisa See, fits in nicely with this trend. See's novel was a pure period piece, telling the story of two women, Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Binging), girls who are bound by laotong, or a lifelong, marriage-like bond between women.

Wang's new film version adds, and cuts back and forth to, a modern-day section, where the Chinese-born Nina (also Li Bingbing) and the Korean-born Sophia (Gianna Jun) share a similar bond. Nina has been offered a job in the United States, and is about to go when she learns that Sophia has been in an accident and now lies in a coma. Nina and Sophia had a falling out some time back and Nina feels obligated to stay. While she waits, she reads Sophia's manuscript about Snow Flower and Lily and their adventures in the mid-1800s.

In the past, Lily's bound feet make her a candidate for a high-class husband, while Snow Flower becomes the wife of a butcher. Not allowed to see one another, the girls communicate via the "secret fan" of the title. Of course, the women in both time periods suffer major ups and downs in their friendships; the difference in class in the past tale equals the difference in culture in the current tale.

American will recognize the actresses for their appearances in action films The Forbidden Kingdom and Blood: The Last Vampire; the material is so different and so much richer here that it may come as a shock. Like his old-time Hollywood predecessors, Wang goes for big-hearted, over-the-top emotions, though sometimes at the expense of logic. In one scene, a child dies because its mother failed to protect it from the cold, which seems highly unlikely. The father hoists the dead boy's body into his great, heaving arms and howls his anguish heavenward.

Audiences and critics are probably not used to reading -- or judging -- this kind of huge openness (similar to the effect of horror movies or comedies). But it's a grand tradition, and audiences know it when they see it. It elicits a physical response, such as tears, and has a definite place in cinema, even if critics can't appreciate it on an intellectual level. That Wang can pull it off with a straight face shows a rare and welcome sensitivity in Hollywood.

Fox Home Entertainment has released a sumptuous looking Blu-Ray. The only real extra is a half-hour making-of featurette.

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