Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is that its producer, Wendi Murdoch, is the wife of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, and that he exercised his, let us politely call it his "influence" over Fox Searchlight to make sure the film got a U.S. release. I do not claim that this fact has any salient bearing on the film's subsequent quality or political underpinnings (it pretty obviously does not), but only that Snow Flower is so otherwise devoid of any content worth talking about, either for the good or for the bad, that a bit of pointless gossip ends up being the only detail about the movie that distinguishes it enough for one to remind oneself that it exists at all.
Based on a novel by Lisa See, Snow Flower concerns two pairs of women: in contemporary Shanghai, the celebration of Nina's (Li Bingbing) appointment to lead her bank's new branch in New York City is cut short when her longtime friend Sophia (Gianna Jun) is hit by a car and hospitalised in a coma; this leads Nina to reflect miserably about how far apart the two of them have grown since 1997, when they were both teenagers who committed to be BFFs, a much more complicated process in China, where it involves signing contracts and such, resulting in what is known as a laotong relationship; when two women, fighting the good fight against a male-dominated society, bound themselves together as platonic heterosexual soul-mates. Nina's puts her career plans on hold, and throws herself into the task of finding out what her onetime best friend in all life was up to during the months since they've last spoken, and finds, among other mementos of a lost soul, a novel in manuscript, titled Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It is a work of historic fiction, based upon the life of one of Sophia's ancestors in the Hunan province, a woman called Snow Flower, who lived in the early 19th Century.
Nina starts to read, and sure enough, the film clicks into a dramatisation of the novel, which finds Snow Flower growing up with her own laotong, Lily; the woman are played by Jun and Li, respectively. And as they go through their own lives, in which Lily proves to make a far better marriage and becomes a proper society lady, while Snow Flower, despite coming from better family, ends up with a provincial butcher. Through all this, the two women remain steadfast, until Snow Flower, realising that she is holding Lily back from reaching her true potential, deliberately sacrifices their friendship at dear personal cost to both.
In case the quaint detail that Li and Jun both do double duty didn't make it clear, allow me to spell it out: the stories of each pair of women reflect and comment upon each other in rather dominant ways, even in rather pat, trite, overdetermined ways, you might say. See's book contained only the historical narrative; the material in 2010 was added by Angela Workman, Ron Bass, and Michael K. Ray, largely by repeating all the plot of the original novel, and then adding in cell phones and the glamorous world of modern international banking. The resultant fact that the stories of the two friendships parallel each other in the most unlikely ways is hand-waved away in a letter from Sophia explaining how, as she wrote, she became aware the book was really about her and Nina, but the actual explanation is lazy screenwriting, figuring that if a story is too slight to fill up a whole motion picture, you can double it and, taa-daa! You've created probing self-commentary! Or something.
In the event, Snow Flower never quite works as a comparison of life in the 19th and 21st Centuries, for by dividing its attention between the two, it loses all focus - on the plot, on the different societies, on the characters especially, and while Li makes at least some effort to keep Nina and Lily as two distinct personalities, Jun is pretty much just playing the same woman in different costumes (and there's at least some narrative justification for doing that; Sophia seeing herself in the character she's writing, and all that), which just serves to exacerbate the sense that the movie doesn't do enough to distinguish its two plots, and justify the fact that both of them exist.
This despite some very weird attempts to cram some kind of sociological undercurrents into the thing; director Wayne Wang (as prominently pointed out in the new film's ads, the director of The Joy Luck Club; a tacky piece of racial ghettoisation, when they could just as accurately have pointed out that he directed Maid in Manhattan) picks up the idea of foot binding and runs with it as far as a human being possibly could, with close-ups of bound feet, close-ups of little shoes, close-ups of modern day women in fashionable and dreadfully unhealthy shoes, and one scene set in an art exhibition involving representations of foot binding. And despite this incredible focus on foot binding, I cannot tell you what, if anything Snow Flower has to say about the act. That is bad, I guess, but its connection to the stories of Lily and Snow Flower, or Nina and Sophia, is largely limited to one mostly ephemeral plot detail early on.
And so it goes: the director has no idea what his film is about, and while it is beautiful in a fairly shallow way, thanks to cinematographer Richard Wong and production designer Molly Page, there's absolutely nothing "there". No social angle, no decent characterisations, no celebration of feminine friendships beyond the fairly obvious fact that they exist, and they are nice. And in despite of all this, Snow Flower clearly believes itself to be an aching, magisterial, heart-wrenching drama; you can tell that from Rachel Portman's weepy score and the long, dusky close-ups of the women looking sad. Unfortunately, just because a film announces itself as a rich tribute to the bounds of friendship, is not the same as it actually being such a thing; and this treatment of a lifelong bond of respect, admiration and love is merely slick and superficial, moving the stick figures in its center through the motions of friendship without seeming to quite understand the actual reasons why we make those deep, abiding friendships in the first place.