If you've been in a bookstore recently, you've seen a copy of Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, most likely on the best-seller rack. As you know, that rack exists as a feeding ground for today's Hollywood producers (read: not fans of original screenplays), so it was only a matter of time before an adaptation rolled out in the worldwide cineplex.
Snow Flower the book is excellent — epic, informative, wrenching and beautifully written. So I was surprised when I caught the film trailer and spied a modern-day subplot interwoven with the book's story of two girls in 18th-century China.
To be fair, this addition fits snugly in director Wayne Wang's comfort zone. His breakout hit, an adaptation of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, was told in the same format, swinging between past and present to tell a story of female bonding and Chinese tradition. Considering Wang's role in bringing Chinese culture into the American mainstream, I felt like I owed him the benefit of the doubt.
So, now added to the story of Lily (Bingbing Li) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun), two laotong (sworn "sames" or sisters) living the traditional female life in rural 18th-century China, the film introduces Nina and Sophia, also played by Li and Jun, now two high school girls in English-speaking 1990s Shanghai. Unfortunately, this split focus makes it necessary to cut out a massive hunk of what made the book great; characters, storylines, important pieces of cultural context are lost. Worse, it's impossible to develop an emotional attachment to the laotong now that the fleshed-out human characters of the book have been reduced to mere slivers of their former selves.
Still intact are a few of the larger hunks of the story between Snow Flower and Lily (and foot-binding, of course), but we're also asked to wade through a clichéd and paper-thin mirror narrative, acted out by two women whose English is not strong enough to make their line readings convincing. It doesn't help that the dialogue is written in a strange cadence that sounds an awful lot like narration from a video game — "I found the man we were looking for. He has opened a trendy new night club called the Upside Down Club."
The main focus of the film is a tangled and half-baked plot thread that finds Sophia/Snow Flower falling into a coma and her friend Lily/Nina trying to come to terms with it. (There's also a truly bizarre song-and-dance cameo by Hugh Jackman.) I can only guess that this dual structure was an attempt to translate the emotions the pair went through as best friends a century ago to a modern audience, and it's completely unnecessary.
The film adaptation of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan never recovers from the strange interpretation by screenwriters Angela Workman, Rin Bass and Michael K. Ray and a bad decision by Wang to shoot scenes in English. Let this be a lesson to those modern-day Hollywood producers out there: If you're going to pillage the best-seller rack, stay true to the source material