Wayne Wang’s twentieth motion picture is something of a flop. The film is a story of sisterhood illustrated by the same duo of actresses, playing three generations of themselves in three eras: in present-day Shanghai; as teenagers in 1997; and in Hunan province in 1829. Based in part on a novel by Lisa See, Wang has crossed this terrain before, with The Joy Luck Club almost two decades ago. That film interlocks its narratives much more tightly and with a great deal more precision than does Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. You sort of sense you’re in trouble when you realise, immediately, that the credits and intertitles are in Papyrus, surely the most mundane of default, standard-issue typefaces.
The inter-generational saga, which uses the same two actresses in all three time periods, begins in the present day, in Shanghai, with a multi-national conglomerate celebrating the opening of a new office in New York, to which one of the two sisters will be sent. Soon backtracking to 1997, and the girls’ adolescence, thence to 1829 and their ancestors’ ritual feet-binding ceremonies and their matching as ‘laotong’ (friends for eternity), the film establishes the bonds that will echo through the ages. There’s no beauty without pain, no peace without suffering, someone says in Hunan by way of explaining why these little girls’ feet must be painfully bound. Their modern-day counterparts’ pain is nowhere near as visible or external; instead, they suffer on the inside.
In 1829, they convey letters by writing on fans (herein the titular ‘secret’) pledging their eternal commitment to one another, while in 1997 they gossip about trivialities as the stock-market crash lingers as a backdrop of concern only to the adults. Arranged marriages, typhoid, and other material inconveniences pervade the nineteenth-century world, while modern Shanghai is sleek but congested. All three worlds are steeped in old-world values, but none feels wholly authentic. (The score—piano-heavy dinner-music for the contemporary scenes, overly zealous traditional instrumental accompaniment for 1829—doesn’t much help.) Physical and emotional sacrifices in service of tradition (1829); dotage and filial piety (1997); and the demands of corporate life (2011) prove all too much for Wang to cut between, and he really puts a spanner in the works by introducing to the contemporary scene Hugh Jackman, of all people, in what is surely the year’s most bizarre cameo (as a sleazy Australian businessman). Making matters worse, for much of the contemporary scenes, the two women speak a stilted, sometimes unintelligible English. (No, I’m not really sure why they weren’t just speaking Mandarin or Cantonese either).
From his first major film, the Cassavetes-like Chan is Missing in 1982, through to The Joy Luck Club and his two great collaborations with Paul Auster, Smoke and Blue in the Face, Wang proved both a competent and interesting filmmaker; over the last decade and a bit, as he’s increasingly turned toward what one can only assume are the financial comforts of commercial cinema, he’s lost the verve and spark he once had. His inability to articulate his message through weaving together the multi-generational stories, combined with often uninspired cinematography, results in an often puzzling, frequently banal film.
Snowflower and the Secret Fan is in cinemas today.