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In 19th-century China, seven-year-old girls Snow Flower (Gianna Yun) and Lily (Bingbing Li) are matched as laotong - or "old sames" - bound together for eternity. Isolated by their families, 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 (Bingbing Li) and Sophia (Gianna Yun), 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.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With weeping violins, wailing cellos and melancholy piano wall to wall, this sentimental story of sisterly love found, lost and found again is beautifully made. The big but is the needlessly complicated storytelling which ultimately distances us from the four central characters, portrayed across two time settings by the same two actresses.

Bingbing Li and Gianna Jun play Nina/Lily and Sophia/Snow Flower, sworn to be bound by sisterly love as young friends. Time, fate and decisions they make in their parallel stories some hundreds of years apart split that bond - at least for a while.

There seems little purpsoe in the parallel stories, even though they are said in the notes to the film to be descendants, except to reinforce one of the film's themes; that while the world may change, this special bond of sisterly love is a constant.

From present day Shanghai, we shift back in time to the 19th century, the days of foot binding, a feature that weighs heavily on the film's intent to symbolise the constricted life Chinese women lead - then. But new constraints apply today.

The two leads are given plenty of close ups in which to portray their emotions, so it is disappointing that we don't feel more of them ourselves. Hugh Jackman appears as an Australian businessman with nightclubs in Singapore, where he sings a love song to Sophia. Jackman is fine in this small role, which has implications for Sophia's future.

The brute force of Rachel Portman's score works against the intricacies of the film and Wayne Wang's direction. The film could have been more engaging and fulfilled its potential with just a few - but crucial tweaks in structure and editing.

Review by Louise Keller:
An intricate and beautiful film about friendship and its implications, Snow Flower and The Secret Fan is as cinematic as its title implies. Unfortunately, the storytelling lets it down; instead of a clear narrative, our journey is far more complicated than it should be. Based on the 2005 bestselling novel by Lisa See, it’s a tale about parallel stories involving two pairs of girls (played by the same actresses) whose close relationship two centuries apart mirror each other’s lives. 

In 19th-century China, Snow Flower and Lily, born on the same day with compatible astrology signs, are matched as laotong – connected for life as sisters. As custom dictates, their feet are tightly bound (‘with pain you find beauty’); a good arranged marriage relies on perfect tiny feet. As the girls blossom into women, Snow Flower (Jun) and Lily (Li) continue to exchange confidences and share their secrets.

While Lily is from a poor family and Snow Flower from one that is privileged, fortunes are reversed when Lily, whose feet are considered perfect, marries well, unlike Snow Flower. Both women become isolated in their marriages at a time when ‘disobedience is a woman’s greatest sin’ and their friendship becomes compromised. In order to communicate, they send messages written in a secret language for women, hidden between the folds of an ornate white silk fan. 

In a parallel story in present day Shanghai, their descendants, Nina (Li) and Sophia (Jun), struggle with their lives for different reasons. Nina is a businesswoman about to take up the career opportunity of her life in New York. By contrast, Sophia’s life has reached crisis point: she is in a coma following a serious bicycle crash. 

Their once close relationship is strained but Nina cancels her flight to be at her friend’s side. It is in flashback we trace their journey as soul-sisters, mirroring the evolution of the friendship between Lily and Snow Flower two centuries earlier. Ironically, Nina and Sophia’s fortunes are also reversed.

With themes about loyalty and sacrifice, the action flits from the past to the present and back again as we become involved in the lives and fates of both pairs of girls. At times I found it difficult to jump between the two different stories and time frames, especially with the two actresses playing both the period and contemporary parts. 

In prose it is no doubt easier to jump seamlessly between the time frames, but director Wayne Wang, whose diverse film credits include The Joy Luck Club (1993), Smoke (1995), Chinese Box (1997) and Maid in Manhattan (2002), tries valiantly to keep the threads meshed and tensions maintained, at times more effectively than others. Rachel Portman’s gorgeous score adds a sumptuous feel with orchestral grandeur and it is easy to be seduced by Richard Wong’s cinematography.

All the performances are excellent with Li shining especially brightly in the dual roles of Lily and Nina. Hugh Jackman is the surprise of the film, making an unheralded cameo as a nightclub owner and Sophia’s Australian boyfriend. It is an incongruous but welcome surprise to see the charismatic Jackman in this context; he brings a burst of energy to the screen and treats us to a song, as well.

Concentration is required to keep up with the dual stories, but it’s mostly worth the effort, in this producing debut for Wendi Murdoch, wife of media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

Visually beautiful, the film is at its most fascinating as it delves into the customs of 19th century China where the story begins. It is easiest to relate to this part of the story, when tradition and women’s role in society impact on the hardships of life. There’s a soulful longing in the central relationship between Snow Flower and Lily; my heart wept for them.
First published in the Sun-Herald.

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(China/US, 2011)

CAST: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Vivan Wu, Hugh Jackman, Archie Kao, Wu Jiang

VOICES: Jennifer Lim, Christina Y. Jun

PRODUCER: Wendi Murdoch, Florence Sloan

DIRECTOR: Wayne Wang

SCRIPT: Angela Workman, Ron Brass, Michael Ray


EDITOR: Deidre Slevin

MUSIC: Rachel Portman

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 15, 2011

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