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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The Mental and Emotional state of “Face”

May 18, 2011

No, this is not about looks or Botox or face-lifting creams or hairstyles, or tanning salons, or the desire to have a rounder, paler moon face—the standard of beauty to most Chinese.

What I am writing about is the meaning of “face” to the Chinese

Dr. Martha Lee wrote, “Nobody ever said what you do with those who have ‘disgraced’ the family name by getting divorced.” Dr. Lee was writing of the ‘hongbao’ dilemma.

In China, if you do something that is considered a disgrace, like getting divorced, that may be considered a “loss of face” for everyone in the family.

Lin Yutang wrote in My Country and My People, “it is easier to give an example of Chinese ‘face’ than to define it.

“The ‘face’ is psychological and not physiological.  Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological ‘face’ makes a still more fascinating study.  It is not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a ‘face’ that can be ‘granted’ and ‘lost’ and ‘fought for’ and ‘presented as a gift’.”

When our daughter was a pre-teen, we went on weekend hikes in the hills behind our home. The end of the hike was a large park across the street from the La Puente Mall. On one fateful day, when she was nine or ten, she was the first to discover a dead man. She came running back with a shocked look.

It turned out the dead man was an architect from Taiwan and his company had gone broke. His “loss of face” for failing had driven him to take an extension cord from his mother’s house, find a suitable tree in an isolated portion of that park, and hang himself.

He was dead when we reached him.

Do not stereotype. The meaning of “face” may vary between Chinese. It depends on the balance between Confucianism and Daoism along with factors like Buddhism or belief in the Christian, Islamic or Jewish God.

“Face” is why most Chinese mothers ride their children hard to do well in school while telling everyone they know that their kid is stupid and/or lazy and has no chance to succeed.

Chinese mothers may often tell their children the same thing. However, if the child is accepted to a prestigious university, that Chinese mother has now earned bragging rights and “gained much face” for the job she did as a mother

To get a better idea, I recommend reading Amy Tan‘s “The Joy Luck Club” or watching the movie.

We had a house full of my wife’s Chinese friends over for dinner. After eating, the children gathered in our downstairs TV room to watch a movie. They picked “The Joy Luck Club“, and during one scene, when the Chinese mother was acting very Chinese, all the children looked at each other, nodded ‘yes’ and laughed ironically. Since my wife is Chinese, I knew why they reacted that way. They all had Chinese mothers.

“Face” is why the Chinese businessman will take great risks or take only a few risks and if given a chance may steal another person blind—that is if they believe they can get away with it. If they are caught and it is against the law, that is a “loss of face”—one reason for suicide.

Most Chinese men will wait until they are successful before they let others know. If they fail, it’s possible no one will hear about it beyond the family unit.

“Face” is why Chinese men often work twelve to sixteen hour days, seven days a week earning small but saving large. The Chinese will do without luxuries and save to pay for their child’s university education. Chinese women will work just as hard.

Studies in today’s China show that the average family saves/spends a third of its income for a child’s education.

Regaining “face” may be one reason why Mao reoccupied Tibet for China in 1949. Look closely, and you may discover that even Taiwan claims Tibet for the same reason.

The other reason may have been tactical—to control the high ground as Israel controls the Golan Heights.

Having control over the Tibetan plateau was one of the tactical reasons Britain convinced the Dalai Lama to declare freedom from China in 1912.

“Face” may be why China’s leaders get so angry over Taiwan. As long as Taiwan is not ruled by the mainland, it may be seen as a “loss of face”.

It’s why the Chinese want to walk on the moon and reach the other planets before anyone else. In China, “face” is universal to most of the population and different for each person.

For the Chinese, taking risks is no stranger. It’s probably the reason the Chinese invented paper, the crossbow, the compass, the stirrup, developed a cure for scurvy, the printing press, gunpowder, and built multi-stage rockets centuries before anyone in the West did.

China’s list of revolutionary inventions is longer than this. Many of these inventions eventually appeared in the West where Westerners took credit for them.

Now you know the truth.

In “What the Chinese Want even More than Oil or Gold“, the focus was on Chinese gambling and about illegal lotteries going legal and national. Since I married into a Chinese family, I understand what the author of this piece was saying, but the topic is more complex than that.

To learn more, I suggest you read the Investoralist, “Where Curious Minds Meet”. The Investorilist piece says that gambling is China’s Achilles heel.

I disagree.

I believe it is risk taking that brought China to greatness in the past. It’s when most Chinese stopped taking risks that China lost its spot as a regional superpower. It’s all about ‘face’. Take a risk and win but make a mistake and get caught, you “lose face” and maybe your life too, which may explain many of the suicides in countries such as China, Japan and Korea.

This revised and edited post first appeared as a four-part series starting February 17, 2010 at Chinese “Face” – Part 1


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

To subscribe to iLook China, look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar, click on it then follow directions.