This China-US co-production, based on Lisa See’s bestseller and directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), will be soon cited as a negative textbook case about how co-production could easily go wrong and how a slew of A-list stars couldn’t save a contrived and badly written story. I saw the film at a LA Laemmle Theater and couldn’t wait for the film to come to an end. It makes me feel that Wendy Deng, the film’s producer and Rupert Murdoch’s third wife, is more adept at socking the face of her husband’s pie-wielding aggressor than producing a decent film that works.
Snowflower and the Secret Fan suffers from many directions. It has too many flashbacks and flash-forwards, a narrative device that aims to weave together a fragmented timeline that spans more than a century. But it never works. Instead, what is presented in front of the audience is a story that lacks a focus, a “couple” that lacks chemistry, and a seemingly serious tone that sometimes feels laughable. It is true that the story is about (or tries to be so) the intimate relationship between Snowflower and Lily (and their modern “reincarnation” of Nina and Sophia) bound by the “laotong” (old comradeship) tradition and women’s script (nvshu). But this “intimacy,” so to speak, proves to be a hard sell for the audience, as there seems to be no sexual tension/chemistry between the two (or maybe the director believes mutual attraction could be simply expressed through looking at each other), and the audience is left wondering as to where their quasi-lesbian feelings come from (to be fair, Wendy Deng might be not the one to blame, as overt gay or lesbian subjects are banned in China). To make the matter worse, the film introduces too many characters and constantly shifts back and forth between 19th century China and 1990s’ Shanghai and then to present-day Shanghai, never trying to seriously explore the relationship in an in-depth manner. What is on the screen, then, is a fragmented story that has too many characters, too many locations, and too little information/explanation as to why there is such a strong female bonding between the two in the first place.
According to Box Office Mojo, as of July 25, 2011, 11 days after its initial release at 24 theaters in North America, Snowflower and the Secret Fan made US$436,170 at the box-office. This figure is next to nothing considering the film cost more than US$6 million to make, and Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club raked in nearly 33 million at the worldwide box-office in the early 1990s.