On the eve of her arranged wedding, Lily is told, “We are women. We are born to leave our families.” In 19th century China, women were considered property, able to be uprooted on a whim with no regard to their well-being. Thus, women created their own families with their laotong, or old friend.
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” begins in modern day Shanghai as laotong Nina (Bingbing Li) and Sophia (Gianna Jun) find themselves grappling with the changes in their lives and their close friendship. Sophia’s near-fatal bike accident leads Nina to look to their ancestors, Lily (Li) and Snow Flower (Jun) whose lifelong bond as laotong endured cultural constraints, terrible husbands and most of all maimed feet.
Fans of the highly acclaimed, bestselling novel by Lisa Sing upon which the film was loosely based are in for a surprise. The novel focused exclusively on the 19th century story arc, while Nina and Sophia were created solely for the film. And, unfortunately, it’s painfully obvious from the very beginning that Nina and Sophia weren’t originally meant to be included at all.
Nina and Sophia are haphazardly tacked onto a story that doesn’t need them and to make matters worse, they are given top billing. Lily and Snow Flower’s emotionally rich, albeit melodramatic, story is utilized as an elaborate back story. The two modern ladies bookend the film and their counterparts are merely glorified accessories.
The de facto anchors of the film, Nina and Sophia, only serve as distractions from the more interesting story. Just as you find yourself immersed in the Chinese culture, particularly the practice of foot-binding which is demonstrated early on in a cringe-worthy sequence, you are jolted back to the comparatively dull modern plot line. The film keeps awkwardly leaping back and forth when all you want it to do is stay in one place — 19th century China.
The modern story arc attempts to mirror its historical counterpart, but its attempts at parallelism are unsuccessful and at times absurd. Stripped of historical context, Nina and Sophia’s bond comes off as a grown-up “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” minus the pants, plus fans. In comparison to Lily and Snow Flower’s struggles, their fights seem petty and their trials seem trivial.
The 21st century equivalent to Snow Flower’s abusive husband is the always dashing, never abusive Hugh Jackman who plays Sophia’s agreeable Aussie boyfriend that Nina inexplicably dislikes. When Lily raises doubts about Snow Flower’s husband, there isn’t a person in the audience that isn’t thinking: “amen sister.” But when Nina raises doubts about the former Sexiest Man Alive, she just seems catty, not to mention delusional.
Even the very basis of the film — the relationship between laotong — doesn’t fully translate in modern Shanghai. In the 19th century, marriage was purely reserved for producing heirs. Lily and Snow Flower provided each other with emotional companionship and love, both of which were noticeably absent in their marriages. However, when Sophia and Nina vow to become laotong, it really only appears to be an elaborate exchange of Claire’s “Best Friends Forever” necklaces.
Sometimes, it’s just best to keep it simple. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, especially when Oprah’s Book Club’s devotees would love the hokey wheel. In the film. Nina and Sophia were likely included to add modern relevance to a traditional story, but they just end up getting in the way of the real message.