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In 19th-century China, seven-year-old girls Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Bingbing Li) are matched as laotong - or "old sames" - bound together for eternity. Isolated in their marriages, they furtively communicate by taking turns writing in a secret language, nu shu, between the folds of a white silk fan. In a parallel story in present day Shanghai, the laotong's descendants, Nina (Bingbing Li) and Sophia (Gianna Yun), struggle to maintain the intimacy of their own childhood friendship in the face of demanding careers, complicated love lives, and a relentlessly evolving Shanghai. Drawing on the lessons of the past, the two modern women must understand the story of their ancestral connection, hidden from them in the folds of the antique white silk fan, or risk losing one another forever.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With weeping violins, wailing cellos and melancholy piano wall to wall, this sentimental story of sisterly love found, lost and found again is beautifully made. The big but is the needlessly complicated storytelling which ultimately distances us from the four central characters, portrayed across two time settings by the same two actresses.

Bingbing Li and Gianna Jun play Nina/Lily and Sophia/Snow Flower, sworn to be bound by sisterly love as young friends. Time, fate and decisions they make in their parallel stories some hundreds of years apart split that bond - at least for a while.

There seems little purpsoe in the parallel stories, even though they are said in the notes to the film to be descendants, except to reinforce one of the film's themes; that while the world may change, this special bond of sisterly love is a constant.

From present day Shanghai, we shift back in time to the 19th century, the days of foot binding, a feature that weighs heavily on the film's intent to symbolise the constricted life Chinese women lead - then. But new constraints apply today.

The two leads are given plenty of close ups in which to portray their emotions, so it is disappointing that we don't feel more of them ourselves. Hugh Jackman appears as an Australian businessman with nightclubs in Singapore, where he sings a love song to Sophia. Jackman is fine in this small role, which has implications for Sophia's future.

The brute force of Rachel Portman's score works against the intricacies of the film and Wayne Wang's direction. The film could have been more engaging and fulfilled its potential with just a few - but crucial tweaks in structure and editing.

Review by Louise Keller:
An intricate and beautiful film about friendship and its implications, Snow Flower and The Secret Fan is as cinematic as its title implies. Based on the bestselling novel by Lisa See, it's a tale about parallel stories involving two girls whose close relationship two centuries apart mirror each other's lives.

With themes about loyalty and sacrifice, the action flits from the past to the present and back again as we become involved in the lives and fates of the girls and those around them. Although at times I found it difficult to jump in and out of the two different stories and numerous time frames (especially as the two leading actresses play both the period and contemporary parts), it is visually beautiful and fascinating to delve into the customs of 19th century China where the story begins.

The film however, begins in modern day Shanghai, where we meet Nina (Li Bingbing), a successful business woman about to take up the career opportunity of her life in New York. A road accident involving her special friend Sophia (Gianna Jun) changes her plans. After she visits her in hospital, we learn in flash back about how they became soul-sisters, reflecting the tradition of their descendents Lily (Bingbing) and Snow Flower (Jun), who back in 1829 sign a laolong contract and learn their own secret language. They would communicate their thoughts between the folds of a silk fan.

Born on the same day, with compatible astrology signs, Lily and Snow Flower have their feet bound as is the custom. A good arranged marriage relies on perfect tiny feet. With pain you find beauty, we hear. Lily is from a poor family and Snow Flower from one that is privileged but fortunes are reversed, which is echoed with Nina and Sophia.

In prose form it is probably easier to jump from the story about the conflicts in Lily and Snow Flower's relationship and those of Nina and Sophia, but director Wayne Wang keeps the threads nicely meshed and tensions maintained. Rachel Portman's gorgeous score adds a sumptuous feel with its melodic theme and orchestral grandeur. All the performances are excellent with Bingbing shining especially brightly. Watch for Hugh Jackman, who makes an unheralded cameo as Sophia's Australian tacky nightclub owner. Concentration is required to keep abreast of the detail and the storyline, but it's mostly worth the effort.

Published April 5, 2012

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(China/US, 2011)

CAST: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Vivan Wu, Hugh Jackman, Archie Kao, Wu Jiang

VOICES: Jennifer Lim, Christina Y. Jun

PRODUCER: Wendi Murdoch, Florence Sloan

DIRECTOR: Wayne Wang

SCRIPT: Angela Workman, Ron Brass, Michael Ray


EDITOR: Deidre Slevin

MUSIC: Rachel Portman

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 15, 2011




DVD RELEASE: April 5, 2012

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