Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Review
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Just a few weeks ago, my mom had lunch with some of her old childhood friends. Though their lives have taken them in different directions over the last 50 years or so, these women still have a bond of friendship that brings them together time and time again to share their stories as they share a meal. But even their friendship doesn’t compare to the women in The Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Lisa See’s novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

When they were teenagers, best friends Nina (Bingbing Li) and Sophia (Gianna Jun) vowed that they’d be sisters for life. Following an ancient Chinese tradition, they even signed a contract, forever binding them together as laotong. Though their lives headed in unexpected directions, they remained friends until six months ago, when a heated argument tore them apart.

  
 
Just as Nina is preparing to leave Beijing to work in New York, she gets a call that Sophia has been in a serious accident. At the hospital, Nina is given Sophia’s bag, in which she finds a manuscript that Sophia had been writing. As she sits beside her comatose friend, she reads Sophia’s fictional story of her ancestor, Snow Flower (Li), and her laotong, Lily (Jun).

Weaving together the modern and 19th-century friendships, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan tells a sweet story of sisterly love—of two pairs of women from different times and cultures who bind their lives together in a friendship that’s stronger and more valuable than any other relationship or responsibility, even marriage. No matter what happens to them—whether they’re rich or poor, whether they’re close together or living far apart—their lives remain connected. Theirs is a quietly moving story—and although the drama tends to be a bit manipulative at times, it’s certainly effective.

The storytelling, meanwhile, is just as effective. While the film often skips back and forth, from Nina and Sophia to Snow Flower and Lily, the transitions are smooth and effortless. And though it tells each story in short snippets, you’ll have no problem seeing the big picture.

But while the film’s focus is on the characters, it also explores age-old Chinese customs, styles, and traditions. In period films like this one, costumes are key—and that’s definitely the case here. They’re often vibrant and strikingly beautiful—giving a burst of color and energy to an otherwise subdued film. But they also help to tell the story, giving the audience a feel for the characters’ lives and how their fortunes change as time passes.

Other glimpses into the culture, however, aren’t as beautiful. The foot-binding scenes are painful to watch—to see the kind of agony that these young girls were forced to endure, in hopes of finding a good husband. The pain lingers throughout the film, as the women struggle to move, hobbling on tiny, bound feet. And it’s only through their friendship—and the secret messages that they send to one another—that they find some kind of momentary freedom from the pressures that their culture has placed on them.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan isn’t an all-audiences kind of movie. It’s quiet and unhurried, and there isn’t a whole lot of action. But it’s a beautiful story that you’ll want to share with your own laotong.

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