Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (PG-13) (105 min.) — Once again director Wayne Wang delves into sisterly ties and cultural binds reminiscent of The Joy Luck Club, this time to considerably less effect. Based on a novel by Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan likely reads better than it plays on screen.
Bingbing Li and Gianna Jun each play dual roles, as Asian women with the same basic issues in modern-day and 19th century Shanghai. Nina (Li) is a rising executive in a vague industry, preparing to move to New York when news comes that her recently estranged best friend forever Sophia (Jun) is comatose after a traffic accident. Nina's bedside manner includes flashbacks to happy times that gradually became worse.
Wang cuts between that modern melodrama and 1873 when Snow Flower (Jun) and Lily (Li) were bonded by foot binding, the torturous process of breaking young girls' feet to make them small and what was perceived then as perfect. The tinier the feet, the better the chance of marrying well. Lily has perfect feet. Snow Flower not so much.
The stories parallel to a degree. Nina's professional life equals Lily's arranged marriage to a big-time salt trader. Sophia's unfulfilled life echoes Snow Flower's settle-for marriage to a chauvinist. Even when fate and fickleness tear them apart, each duo is bound by the fact that they are laotung, having signed pledges of undying love, making them sisters of sorts.
Wang's high regard for women is intact, plus a keen eye for period detail making the 19th century sequences lovely to observe. But it's nothing we haven't seen before. Rachel Portman's musical score keeps prodding viewers to find this soapy drama more compelling than it is. The performances are fine, with the exception of Hugh Jackman's intrusion as Sophia's former lover. He sings in Chinese, if that's appealing.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is produced by Wendi Murdoch, tiger wife of beleaguered News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch, and defender of his pride from prank pies. The movie is distributed by Fox Searchlight, a division of Rupert's empire. After Wendi's slap heard round the world, it seems like the least he could do.
Shown with occasional English subtitles. C+ (Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar; Citrus Park 20 in Tampa)
Steve Persall, Times film critic