Lovely yet tepid, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is as thrilling as staring at an ornate tapestry until your eyes begin to cross — an overload of beauty mingled with stifling boredom. Adapted from Lisa See’s book-club fave about the sanctity of friendship and intimacy, the film version is curiously dispassionate and remote, burdened by a twin timeline narrative that would bore in any era.
In mid-Qing dynasty China, young girls Snow Flower (Korean star Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bingbing) are bonded together as “Laotong” or “Old Sames,” a sort of sworn sisterhood of lifetime companionship. Together they endure endless hardships, from disfiguring foot-binding rituals to joyless marriages and opium wars. For mysterious reasons, the trio of screenwriters felt the need to clumsily fuse the 19th century to a 21st century parallel absent from the book, where the same actresses play modern Shanghai BFFs, with more high-class problems such as, “My wealthy boyfriend wants to move me to Australia and shower me with luxury!”
The modern scenes are whined in halting English that the women deliver in breathy chirps as if being spoon-fed each line.
There are disruptions in the sleepy melodrama, as when Hugh Jackman pops in to croon a nightclub standard in Mandarin.
Director Wayne Wang’s résumé contains gems (Smoke), competent lady-centric pictures (The Joy Luck Club) and dreadful hokum (Maid in Manhattan). Snow Flower is caught in the twilight between those extremes, neither awful nor exceptional, just a lukewarm mush. There’s a noble tale of sacrifice and love to be found somewhere here, but it’s buried beneath endless shots of billowing silk, and long takes of the leads gazing soulfully as the same four bars of weepy music drone over and over, and the only thing eternal is the runtime.
Showing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.