by Tim Ross
If you went to the movies on a summer evening not knowing what you were about to see, chances are there would be explosions, bulging muscles and superhuman powers. Summer is for fan boys, sci-fi geeks and hero worshippers. But too much of any one kind of thing gets old, so it was a refreshing change to watch a sentimental, soulful story unfold at the pace of reading a sweet book on a rainy afternoon.
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” follows the story of two women bound by custom, love and loyalty that spans almost 200 years in the telling.
Bingbing Li and Gianna Jun star as both the modern and 19th century versions of two women who make a lifetime vow of sisterhood, or laotong. This Chinese practice was a way for woman to bond, share a secret language and take comfort in each other while coping in what was otherwise a male-dominated society.
The film opens in present day as Sophie (Jun) falls into a coma and her friend Nina (Li) arrives to hold vigil at her beside. Through a series of flashbacks we learn the two women took their laotong pledge as teenagers, but have since grown apart.
When Nina finds a manuscript Sophie is writing about an ancestor from the early 1800s, Snow Flower, and her laotong sister Lily, we are swiftly transported in time as Li and Jun portray their 19th century counterparts.
Having the same actresses play both parts serves the film on several levels. It illustrates how aspects of history can repeat themselves and also tells how love, loyalty and the power of a sisterly bond are both universal and timeless.
The soundtrack lends to the soulful feel of the film, the story weaves back and forth through time effortlessly – though both the story and actresses are more compelling in the 1800s plotline – and the cinematography is rich and detailed.
There’s also a gratuitous appearance in a small role by Hugh Jackman, whose presence is not quite in tune with the rest of the tale. He’s certainly not a draw for this movie.
The draw is the language, love and understanding women have shared through the ages while contending with the customs of male-dominated societies. This film is both a reminder of the past and a way of celebrating the triumphs woman have earned in modern times.
Grade: 3/4 stars