Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – a movie review

July 16, 2011

This film (based on a novel by Lisa See) is the story of four women and of the complexities of China — Lily and Snow Flower live in 19th century Southwest China, while Nina and Sophia live in 21st century Shanghai.

The characters of Lily and Nina are played by Bingbing Li and Sophia and Snow Flower by Gianna Jun. The director is Wayne Wang, who worked on The Joy Luck Club among other films.

Even in the 19th century, Shanghai was a world apart from Southwest China and still is.  It is safe to say that the day-to-day grind of life probably hasn’t changed much (except for foot binding and more freedom for women) in remote rural villages in Southwest China, which is off the beaten track of most foreign tourists that visit China on fast-paced packaged tours.

I read Lisa See’s novel soon after it came out and although I enjoyed the book and felt it was well written, I couldn’t understand why it stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List as long as it did.  And to be honest, I still don’t. However, if there was a formula to predict why a few books are wildly successful and many fail, no one has discovered it yet.

The original story Lisa See wrote shows a small part of China and in no way represents all of China and all things Chinese. That would be a challenge since China is a diverse land with many spoken languages and cultures and one written language and a very long history.

From what I recall, Snow Flower and Lili, the characters in 19th century China, live in Southwest China and belong to one of China’s fifty-six minorities, which have unique cultures apart from China’s Han majority, and as children these two girls are sworn to be loyal friends for life.

Considering what life was like in China for woman in the early 19th century, it is understandable why such a custom would have evolved.  However, to be clear, I will remind the reader that women were mostly treated this way everywhere in the world at that time, and many still are outside the US, Europe and China. Sex slavery and abuse of women still exists in many countries such as Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Fortunate for me, I read the reviews of this film in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle after I saw the film.

These reviews, written by Sino-blind Americans, demonstrate no clue that the real purpose of this movie may have been to highlight China’s past and present and not as another cloned US movie such as two I saw recently, which reflect what is mostly popular in America. Both of these American movies, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon and Horrible Bosses, lacked depth without a soul, and I cannot recommend them to anyone. However, I must admit that I’m capable of enjoyed both depthless movies and films with depth such as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

I’ve been to China many times and sat in movie theaters watching movies made in China for a Chinese audience and this movie, to me, is a Chinese film with Chinese actors and actresses set in China.  After all, a Chinese film company was behind its production and the director is Chinese.

Most Chinese do not think like the average American that is often stuck on a linear path incapable of seeing the meaning between the lines. However, Chinese think metaphorically meaning if you want to understand and enjoy this film, look between the lines and learn from what is hidden in sight?

As we travel with the ancient (19th century) and modern (21st century) sworn sisters with scenes that shift from past to present, we discover that although there is more personal freedom in China today than there was almost two centuries ago, life still comes with no guarantees.  The scenes in modern Shanghai show a city in transition with old being torn down being replaced by new as if China is emerging from a cocoon. I saw this transition as a metaphor.  The scene where Nina is taking off her high heels and rubbing her feet compared to the ancient Lili (both played by the same actress) taking off her three-inch shoes and rubbing her bloodied, painful bound feet demonstrates how far China has evolved.

In fact, because this film is more Chinese than the novel written by American born and raised Lisa See, I feel it captured more of a sense of China than the novel did.

For those reasons, I cannot agree with most of the American media critics that trashed the film.  Of course, to be fair, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan would be considered a failed and flawed film to most Western critics because it is a Chinese film adapted from a Western book.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is more than just a disjointed film jumping clumsily between centuries. This film represents China and the complexity of Chinese civilization and it demonstrates how much China has changed while so much that is often out of sight of most foreigners stays the same.

If you have the patience to suspend your Western values and expectations of what movies should offer and want to discover something new, I recommend seeing this film. But be warned, since this film is Chinese (in my opinion), it pushes the melodramatic envelope beyond what most Americans are comfortable with.

Shallow thinkers that flock to see movies such as Transformers 3, Horrible Bosses, The Zookeeper, and Cars 2, etc. may want to avoid Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  However, if you are an individual that enjoys learning and expanding your horizons, go — and take a box of tissues.

Also discover Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and/or Farewell My Concubine


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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