Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The old and the new collide in modern Shanghai.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Archie Kao, Vivian Wu, Hugh Jackman, Russell Wong, Coco Chiang, Congmeng Guo, Yan Dai, Ying Tang, Chen Tao, Zhong Lu, Mian Mian, Wu Jiang, Feihu Sun. Directed by Wayne Wang

What makes a friendship last? Is it the experiences we share or is it something deeper, a connection that cannot be explained or quantified? Why is it that our friendships sometimes seem far more lasting and deeper than our romantic relationships?

In the early 19th century in China, two young girls – Snow Flower (Jun), born into a family of wealth, and Lily (Li), born into poverty, have their feet bound on the same day (the bones broken then the feet wrapped tightly in silk in order to inhibit growth which made the feet smaller, a prized feature in ancient China) and are made laotong  – which translates to “old sames” and is a deep friendship between two women that is contractual but entered in through mutual choice rather than arrangement.

The two young girls grow up into women and each are married; Lily, whose perfect feet make her a prize, into the wealthiest family in Hunan Province and into a loveless marriage and Snow Flower, whose family fortunes have taken a nosedive when her father blew the fortune on opium, to a butcher (Jiang), the lowest rung on the social ladder in the day. Snow Flower’s marriage has its share of difficulties but at least there is some love there.

In modern Shanghai, Nina (Li) is about to leave for New York City to run the North American office of a prestigious financial firm. However, her plans are interrupted by the news that her estranged friend Sophie (Jun) has been gravely hurt in a bicycle accident, lying in a coma in a Shanghai hospital. Nina discovers that her friend is writing a book about the two laotong from the 19th century, seeing in them a parallel between herself and Nina. The occasion is hastened by an exhibit on laotong at a Shanghai gallery.

Nina decides to dig into Sophie’s life, searching for a missing fan on which Snow Flower and Lily communicated in nu shu, a secret language for women. In the process, she discovers the insignificance of the barriers between them and the importance of friendship, particularly one as deep and lasting as the one they share.

Wang, who has also directed The Joy Luck Club, based this on the bestselling novel by Chinese-American author Lisa See. He and writers Ron Bass, Angela Workman and Michael Ray, added the modern sequences which didn’t appear in the book. The device allows some juxtaposition between modern and ancient China; whether or not that was necessary is a subject of some debate.

To the movie’s credit, it captures both the ancient and modern Chinas beautifully. This is a very good looking film. Also to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t skimp on the ugliness that sometimes rears its ugly head, from the foot binding to the abuse of women and mistreatment, particularly in ancient China when they were little more than property

Jackman, who has a song and dance background from Broadway, gets to show off his singing chops as a singing nightclub owner in the modern sequences in a very small role so if you’re going to see the movie because of his presence, be aware he only appears in a handful of scenes. However the performance of Li, who plays both Lily and Nina, is strong and is one of the reasons I gave the movie a rating this high. She makes a compelling lead and carries most of the movie on her shoulders, which may seem delicate but are much stronger than they appear.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has received some scathing reviews, some of which I can kind of see, but others seem to be more aimed at the involvement of Rupert Murdoch (who personally lobbied to get this film released) and his wife (who is listed as a producer for the film). While I hold no love for Murdoch or his media empire, I can only review the movie, not who made it. The movie is beautifully made on a subject rarely delved into in Hollywood (even Thelma and Louise was a movie that was less about ordinary circumstances as this one is). Sure, it’s flawed – the pace is a little too slow for my tastes and I suspect that focusing on the 19th century story rather than drawing parallels in modern China would have benefitted the film overall. Nonetheless it’s a movie well worth seeing just for the insight into feminine friendships and the cinematography alone.

REASONS TO GO: A compelling look at female friendships, a rare thing in the movies. Beautifully shot in modern Shanghai and ancient China.

REASONS TO STAY: The story moves at a fairly glacial pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some violence, a few disturbing images and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was scored by Rachel Portman, the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Score (for Emma in 1996).

HOME OR THEATER: The beautiful cinematography should be enjoyed on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Cowboys and Aliens

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Michelle Yeoh finds that checking out books at the Ancient China branch of the library can be problematical at best.

(2008) Action Adventure Horror (Universal) Brenan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, John Hannah, Isabella Leong, Chau Sang Anthony Wong, Russell Wong, Liam Cunningham, David Calder, Jessey Meng, Tian Liang.  Directed by Rob Cohen

Movie monsters may come and movie monsters may go, but you can’t keep them down for too long. That, at least in my estimation, is the lesson generated by the first two movies of the Universal Mummy reboot.

The third installment of the series starts off very promising. Evil Chinese emperor (Li) plans to take over the world, but falls in love with sorceress Zi Yuan (Yeoh) who only has eyes for the emperor’s right hand General Ming (R. Wong), which cheeses off the emperor enough to kill his best field general. The emperor apparently never learned not to piss off a sorceress, so on the pretense of making the emperor immortal she instead curses him and his soldiers to turn into clay, and as such they are entombed for four thousand years.

That is, until Alex O’Connell (Ford) comes along. A young, promising archaeologist excavating in China stumbles upon the tomb, one of the most important finds of the 20th century, but in doing so accidentally awakens the emperor who has plans to resume his world domination scheme after a slight delay. Those darn Chinese emperors!

Alex’s parents, Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz who chose not to return to the role) have been living in wedded bliss for more than a decade since the events of The Mummy Returns. However, they are both unspeakably bored and who wouldn’t be? Anything after a life of danger, adventure, exotic places and of course the undead would seem a bit dull by comparison.

Given the opportunity to return a rare gem to the Chinese people as a gift from the British government, the O’Connell’s head to China to reunite with their son, choosing a bar in Shanghai owned by Evelyn’s ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan (Hannah), which is a mistake in itself. There they are attacked and helped out by Lin (Leong), who turns out to be the daughter of the sorceress and General Ming who inherited her mom’s immortality. Thanks mom!

After witnessing the truly evil nature of the mummy and his human henchman General Yang (C.S.A. Wong), the O’Connell’s realize that they are the only people equipped to deal with yet another outbreak of mummy-ism. They are in turn aided by the sorceress and her yeti pals. This all leads to a big battle by the Great Wall in which the emperor’s soldiers are opposed by the slaves they murdered to build the wall (brought back to life conveniently by the sorceress) and the emperor, who morphs himself into a formidable fire-breathing three-headed dragon. The odds are against the O’Connells and their allies but if you know mummies like they know mummies, you won’t be worried about the whole day-saving thing.

Cohen takes over from Stephen Sommers who helmed the first two movies and does adequately. Cohen is no stranger to big movies, having directed xXx and the original The Fast and the Furious among other things but he doesn’t get to use Vin Diesel here.

Instead, he gets Brendan Fraser and the actor utilizes his considerable charm to make Rick likable despite being a bit of a whiner here. The chemistry between Fraser and Weisz is sorely missed and although Bello is a terrific actress in her own right, she really isn’t right for the role. Quite frankly, her English accent is a bit too upper class for Evelyn, and she comes off as a bit phony. She does look good in the fight scenes at least.

Alex O’Connell has gone from an annoying child in The Mummy Returns to an annoying adult here, so the less said the better. Hannah provides comic relief nicely, but for me the real attraction here is Li and Yeoh. Li is one of the greatest martial artists ever in movies and while he doesn’t get as much time demonstrating his prowess (he’s much too busy being a CGI mummy or dragon), he shines when he does. Yeoh is in my opinion an incredibly gifted actress who is shamefully underrated here in the States. She is, as always, one of the best reasons to see this movie.

There is plenty of eye candy to go around and the action sequences make the movie at least palatable. However, a lot of the sparkle and gee-whiz fun is missing from this movie where it was present in the first two. You get the impression this was just a paycheck for most of the people involved, who are sufficiently talented enough to make this entertaining, but without the spark that would have made this amazing. It’s one of those things where you have good talent, a great concept and skilled filmmakers but it doesn’t add up to the great movie it should have been. Instead, it’s merely adequate.

It’s not good form to compare a movie to the one that you think should have been made, but the movie disappointed me so here you have it. It’s certainly worth a look if you haven’t already seen it, but don’t expect to have your socks blown off. Your footwear is quite safe this time.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular effects and some amazing fight scenes. Any chance to see Li and Yeoh is worth taking. Fraser is as charming as ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bello is miscast somewhat. The story is a bit weak compared to the first two movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action movie-type violence and a few disturbing monster images that might be a bit much for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tomb and the terra cotta warriors are based on the actual tomb of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty in Xi’an, China. The excavations have been going slowly for decades, partially because of traps left by the builders of the tomb, some similar to the ones depicted in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual terra cotta warriors, as well as a trivia track and a U-Control feature called “Know Your Mummy” that compares this movie with the previous two Mummy flicks, the latter two being only on the Blu-Ray edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $401.1M on a $145M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beginners