Story Within a Story, by Jack Fleischer
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a multigenerational, pan-language film, about the potential depth of a relationship between two women. It is at times beautiful and touching, and while it dives deep into certain cultural aspects unique to China, I imagine it will find fans regardless of their cultural heritage.
Calling this a “chick flick” would be dismissive, but like the term implies, this is a film firmly aimed at women in the same way that some films can firmly be labeled “prick flicks.” Many times I’ve heard it said that they don’t make female buddy flicks, and this film seems like a very direct answer to that observation. Think Bridesmaids crossed with the Joy Luck Club, and subtract nearly all humor, and juice the drama quotient.
The movie begins in the present day, at a high-powered dinner in Shanghai that celebrates the work and promotion of Nina. Meanwhile Nina’s estranged friend Sophia, out on the street and trying to contact Nina, gets hit by a car and is put into a coma. Over the next 90 minutes we follow Nina as she tries to put together what has happened to Sophia in the time between the estrangement and the accident.
It’s this search that leads the audience into the heart of the story, which revolves a novel written by Sophia entitled … Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. A story, which seems at first like it might be fiction, but then we (spoiler?) find out that it’s a true story about Sophia’s ancestor Snow Flower.
As Nina finds the pages Sophia wrote, the story comes alive, and we hop back and forth between the present day, and the ancient Chinese world of Snow Flower and her friend Lilly. In some ways I don’t think it matters much if the story is “true” or not, because its primary purpose is to illustrate the Sophia/Nina relationship using the grand backdrop of ancient China. While an interesting and enlightening device, it has the unintended result of making this film feels like a light drama wearing a very grand suit of clothes.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan takes advantage of the fact that there are some truly unique aspects to some Chinese women’s relationships. There’s foot binding, a practice both barbaric and very real, which I think many audience members will be familiar with. Yet, two new concepts for me (honky-cracker-meathead) was “laotong” – or a sort of emotional marriage between women long practiced, and “nushu” an ancient undercover language used only by Chinese women.
Aside from one jaw shatteringly jarring cameo (I’ll let you be surprised), ultimately the movie is well put together and the acting is decent. I will say that its insights into the intricacies of Chinese women’s historical relationships is fascinating, but, unless you have direct connection with the material it may be a hard movie to get into it.
But then again I really like explosions, guns, and car chases — so what do I know?