A portrait of female fidelity that ranges across centuries and social classes, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is sad, sumptuous fluff with a refined literary pedigree. Matching the tumultuous relationship of two modern Chinese girls with that of similarly circumstanced 19th-century counterparts, it doubles the problem faced by most adaptations, forced to tell two oversized stories at once. The result is brittle and opulently desiccated, less an account of friendship than a connective tissue-laced list of the things that threaten it.
The film hinges on the tradition of Lao Tong, a kind of lifelong bond forged between young girls. It's explained as an autonomous alternative for women forced into arranged marriages, but the pairing of Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bing Bing) isn't a matter of choice, designed to hitch a falling family's fortunes to a rising one, a symbiotic attempt to earn both girls better marriage prospects. This inauspicious beginning is glossed over completely, surrendering to the fantasy depiction of soul mates united against the incessant misfortunes of life. It's the kind of shortcut Snow Flower takes liberally, beholden to the tidal drag of its overstuffed plot.
Snow Flower and Lily exist within a fictional universe created by Sofia (Jun), a budding novelist whose modern-day Lao Tong–ship with the upwardly mobile Nina (Li) is threatened by mirroring problems. The actresses pull double duty across the two sections, and both are better suited to the stiff scenes of antique China, hobbling on bound feet and murmuring in hushed voices, than the more stridently dramatic present-day scenes. Beyond the clunky acting, the verisimilitude of these relationships is strained by the fact that, aside from a brief introductory idyll for Sofia and Nina, we never see any of them doing much but suffering and fighting. This vacuum creates a need for characters like Sofia's aunt (no name given, fittingly), a human exposition fountain who pops up from time to time to connect holes in the plot.
The same kind of shorthand applies to the husbands in the historic section, who rather than providing parallels to the girls perfect platonic love are tagged as nonentities. Lily's beau is cold, ambitious, and neglectful; Snow Flower's unnamed husband, in line with her plummeting social status, is a coarse butcher who slurps his soup. It's to the film's credit that it doesn't write them off as flat bad guys, finding room for at least a smidgen of humanity in each, but their direct presence in the story is tiny. Lily's husband speaks his last of roughly three lines somewhere near the end of the first act, sticking around only to grow a stately mustache that indicates the passage of time.
The result is a film that, despite gestures toward modernity and clumsy humanism, feels regressive, presenting a version of modern China that's as much of an anesthetized fairy tale as its costume-drama past. The extravagant art direction adds to this stifling atmosphere; even the trifling attempts at presenting decay look sparkling. In one section, Snow Flower's father ruins himself through drug abuse, all while clutching a gorgeously wrought, elaborate opium set. In the other, the fallen Sofia lives in a millionaire's conception of squalor, a brick-walled apartment with a chic sense of disorder.
Wayne Wang's direction is hard to pinpoint in this lavish mess, shot by Richard Wong in compositions that are painterly but never really beautiful. There are a few glimpses of splendor, like a shot of two young girls playing in a snowy doorway, framed by dark shadows, but there's no time for these brief moments to take hold. Pegged with the necessary earnestness to ready the ground for last-minute waterworks, the film lacks the snap of Karel Reisz's The French Lieutenant's Woman, which attempted a similar past/present parallel, albeit with a postmodern eye toward the difficult tenuousness of the concept. Instead Snow Flower and the Secret Fan races about fulfilling its obligations, a bustle that distracts from the tender, if stuffy, story at its core.