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FILM

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Laborious book club adaptation fails on every level

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

1 Star
(PG-13)

I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but now’s as good a time as any to cast aspersions on the Murdoch media empire. After all, everyone else is doing it.

The film adaptation of Lisa See’s 2005 novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, counts among its producers Wendi Deng Murdoch, wife of News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch; it’s being released by Fox Searchlight, a studio owned by Murdoch; and it features Hugh Jackman, of Fox’s Wolverine franchise, as the film’s biggest star in one of the film’s smallest roles. I can’t confirm that the entire operation came to fruition through favors alone, but given the criminally tedious outcome, it’s hardly an unreasonable suspicion.

It begins in present-day Shanghai, as intrepid banker Nina (Li Bingbing) celebrates her promotion to a position in New York. When she learns that her estranged friend, Sophia (Gianna Jun), has landed in a coma following a traffic accident, she calls the whole thing off and remains by her bedside, rifling through a manuscript written by Sophia about her own ancestors, Snow Flower (also Jun) and Lily (also Li). She tells of their suffering at the hands of epidemics, uprisings, bad stepmothers, worse husbands, crying children, dying children, foot-binding and other assorted miseries.

Director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) and his three credited writers trust neither the source material nor their audience, intertwining a pair of melodramas with all the care of shuffling cards and drawing the limpest of parallels between the two. A girl having her feet broken then bound is pretty much like the pain of wearing high heels! Parents are just as determined to arrange marriages as they are to set specific plans for higher education! And if you don’t see how the relationships between sworn laotong (friends who are closer than even spouses) and modern BFFs correspond, don’t worry – a character will spell that out, too.

The narrative volleys from the early 1800s to the late 1990s and present day, as women bear their burden of obedience in each era. Production designer Man Lim-chong furnishes the period sequences with the requisite amount of ornate set dressing: enough to appropriately evoke the time and place without actually setting any sort of mood as Snow Flower and Lily exchange tales of woe on ink-stained fans over the years. It’s the type of historical material that usually makes for a leaden piece of awards bait, prone to shots of wringing hands and longing glances.

Worse is the wedged-in tension over Sophia’s survival and Nina’s hunt for answers, including the exact hiding place of the titular fan. This English-heavy expansion of the novel’s original plot does the two leads no favors, doubling the amount of stilted dialogue and giving Jackman an excuse to show up as Sophia’s last known lover. His handful of scenes is by no means revelatory, but it does demonstrate the quiet confidence brought by a consummate professional and otherwise provides a much-needed contrast to the rehearsed and flat nature of the film’s other performances.

Snow Flower is often concerned with ritual and ultimately consumed by it, assembled without passion or personality, all because the book sold too many copies not to be made into a pretty picture. It tugs at the heartstrings with all the force of a shrug and a sigh, every bit as repressed as its protagonists. Some will argue that certain films should bypass theaters altogether and be released direct to video. I would’ve liked to see this go straight to book clubs. The Murdochs surely must own a couple of those.

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