Saturday, August 13, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

When I darted into the theater yesterday to watch "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" I already had images of citron flowers upon my eyes in anticipation. This was, after all, a film by Wayne Wang, a good director with a solid body of work: notably "The Joy Luck Club" (1993) and "Smoke" (1995). Both films, classics of Wang's repertoire, are vividly shot with an originality of character and feeling.

You can imagine my surprise, expressed in writing by the Chinese character "口" as the film started. Something was off. A bit like a Chinese landscape suddenly gone blurry but nonetheless painted on a spool of fine rice paper with all the intention of delicacy, or in this case, a film that should have rolled by like visual dim sum, happy on the eyes.

But instead I received what I can only describe as an aftertaste: plot-elements all too familiar, a visual wonton instead of a banquet that had been left too haphazardly on the production floor.

The story is based on the novel by Lisa See of the same name. Nina (Li Bing Bing) has a "sworn sister" or a "Laotong" (a soulmate) Sophia, played by Gianna Jun. Sophia gets in a horrible traffic accident. Although apart for many years, Nina visits Sophia at the hospital, as she is comatose and near death. This is acceptable but the melodramatic score and the simplistic voiceover makes it seem like a Tv movie.

Abruptly Nina finds a manuscript in Sophia's bag and begins to read. It concerns soulmate friends brought together by the process of foot-binding. The "imagined" vignettes are slow and lethargic and do not match the brisk and colorful fast pace of the 21st century Shanghai. I know the director was aiming for a slow, poignant contrast here, of the old world and the new, but the old is honestly boring with little visual verve. As a person with an orthopedic history myself, I was wincing in pain during the foot-binding scene. It delivered a sense of horror yes, but there was no emotional engagement--just a record of an outdated barbaric ritual. Most of the flashbacks are filled with tremendous painful screams due to death, torture, bad men or typhoid. And the melting big brown eyes of the young children would make artist Walter Keane sue for copyright infringement. Must the absolute horror of deformity be so sentimental?

The vignettes are even titled in an odd clumsy fashion. Every sequence is prefaced "four days later" or "four months earlier". This is confusing and annoying by itself, but when coupled with stilted dialogue and over the top melting looks, it becomes comical.

By the time Hugh Jackman came onscreen I was laughing out loud when I should have been moved. Even Jackman's singing seems forced.

I humbly wish that Wayne Wang might go to the temple of Wen, so that he may yet make a better movie. Surely the God of Culture and Literature will grant him another try.

It is his namesake.

Write Ian at

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