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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

In 1993, Chinese-American filmmaker Wayne Wang had his first audience hit with The Joy Luck Club, adapted from Amy Tan’ popular novel about four women born in China and the daughters they raise in America. So it makes sense that when first-time producer Wendi Murdoch, a.k.a. the woman who saved her husband Rupert from getting pie-eyed a few weeks ago, acquired the rights to Lisa See’s book about Chinese female friends, she would hire Wang to direct it. (How’s this for a coincidence: The film is being released by Fox Searchlight, a company owned by one R. Murdoch!)

See’s book was set in early-19th-century China and traced the life-long friendship of two women bound as laotong, a ritual arranged by the same matchmakers who set up marriages, in which astrology is used to pair girls who will enrich each other’s lives.

Ms. Murdoch also hired Joy Luck scripter Ron Bass to do the adaptation, and presumably it was his idea to mirror the earlier film’s juxtaposition of past and present by inventing an entirely new story about a pair of modern women. As girls in the fast-growing city of Shanghai, Nina and Sophia were close despite their class differences, but grew apart in their 20s. When Sophia is left comatose by an accident, Nina is summoned to her bedside. She discovers the manuscript of a novel Sophia has been writing about her ancestor, which brings us into the See story.

Rather than work as a frame device, though, the modern story dominates, leaving too little room for the historical one to develop. Too much historical context falls by the wayside (the friends are reunited by a little ruckus called the Taipeng rebellion, which killed 20 or 30 million people). And because we’re so conscious of the fact that this is a story concocted by Sophia, we train to find connections with her history with Nina that don’t seem to be there.

Wang gets the most out of what appears to have been a limited budget, and the story is eventful enough to hold your attention, but it never compels you, nor is the predictable ending a tear-jerker on the level of Joy Luck Club (admittedly a high bar to match). And stars Li Bingbing and Jun Gianna, who play both sets of friends, shouldn’t have been forced to act in English: their adequate-at-best accents put up more of a wall than subtitles would have, especially for the audiences likely to see this.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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