Aug. 3 2011 12:00 AM

’Snow Flower’: Chinese soap opera gets the gong


A sort of Asian variation on “Fried Green Tomatoes,” director Wayne Wang’s “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”
contrasts the lives of two pairs of lifelong friends. Snow Flower and
Lily grew up together in 17th-century China, while Nina and Sophia are
very much 21st-century women. A bloodline crosses the centuries: Lily
was one of Nina’s ancestors.

Unfortunately, the movie is hopelessly lopsided, since the story of Snow Flower and Lily is considerably more absorbing — and  convincingly
acted — than the generally stilted, hard-to-swallow contemporary
material. Although they seem perfectly at home in the Hunan Province of
the early 1800s, Bingbing Li, in the dual roles of Lily and Nina, and
Gianna Jun, as Snow Flower and Sophia, have a far more challenging time
in modern-day Shanghai. Neither actress sounds particularly confident
speaking English, and the groan-worthy dialogue they’re given (“I’m writing a book: It’s about the old days — but I think it’s really about us!”) doesn’t help matters at all.

Lisa See’s novel only told Snow Flower and Lily’s story; perhaps screenwriters Angela Workman, Ronald Bass and Michael K. Ray caught “Julie & Julia” (or saw its box office grosses) and thought, “Hey, it worked for Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.”

But the parallel plotlines here don’t
complement each other — they strangle each other. Every time Wang cuts
away from Lily and Snow Flower the movie sinks into soap-opera-style
mediocrity, and by the time he gets back to the historical drama it
takes a while to pick up where we left off.

As children, wealthy Snow Flower and poor but lovely Lily were chosen to be “latong,”
inseparable sisters, by a matchmaker. Almost 170 years later, Nina and
Sophia became fast friends through their mutual love of pop music and
forbidden snacks known as “oily buns.”

Both relationships would be complicated
by outsiders (Lily ends up wedded to a dork who allows his obnoxious
mother to treat her like a slave; Nina disapproves of Sophia’s
bad taste in men) and suffused with secrets. Snow Flower and Lily
exchange messages written on the panels of a fan, while Sophia lives a
double life that she won’t — or can’t — share with Nina.

“Snow Flower” is undeniably eye-pleasing, with its shimmering cinematography and superb use of muted colors and shadows. It’s mystifying, though, that a film with ample potential for jerking tears and touching hearts never accomplishes its goals.

Wang rolls out foot-binding sequences,
miscarriages, drug addiction, sexual harassment, spousal abuse,
near-fatal accidents, cross-dressing, ill-fated children, a musical
number from Hugh Jackman (in a puzzling minor role) and even a hasty
escape from marauding rebels, yet the movie remains frustratingly flat
and tepid.

Amusingly, “Snow Flower”
turns out to have been produced by Wendi Murdoch, the wife of
Voldemort, uh, Rupert. Why she put her energy (and probably some of her
husband’s money) into a film that chronicles one
nightmarish marriage after another might be a far more compelling tale
than either of the ones on the screen.

’Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’
Opens Friday at NCG Eastwood Cinemas
2500 Showtime Drive, Lansing  (517) 316-9100