Snowflower and the Secret Fan
I wanted to hate Snowflower and the Secret Fan. Really, I did. Lisa See, I owe you an apology.
When I first heard that Lisa See’s bestselling novel Snowflower and the Secret Fan was going to be made into a major movie, I had no desire to watch it. After all, I have managed to avoid See’s series of historical novels, set in ancient China, with their misty titles and Shanghai poster girl cover art. I braced myself for tired old Asian stereotypes to be reinforced to a new generation.
Plenty of (non-Asian) people have recommended that I read See’s books. But just looking at the covers left sort of a bad feeling in my stomach—sort of like the feeling I get from eating overly Americanized Chinese food. Or rather, when some non-Chinese person raves about bad Chinese food. Sweet and Sour Pork! Cashew Chicken!
My gut reaction has been that See, who is herself part-Chinese and identifies as such, writes exotic tales that play right into stereotypes of the mysterious, oppressed — yet strangely beautiful — “Oriental” female. The Snowflower film was backed by Chinese-Americans Wendi Deng Murdoch (wife of Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch) and Florence Sloan (wife of MGM CEO Harry Sloan).
But the movie surprises — on more than one level. The motion picture adaptation adds a modern twist to See’s novel, as the lao tong (that’s Mandarin for BFF) friendship between wealthy Snowflower and villager Lily, is revealed in flashbacks. Woven between the flashbacks is a parallel story set in modern-day Shanghai, of the unraveling friendship between estranged best friends Nina and Sophia.
Snowflower and Nina are played by Korean actress Gianna Jun, and Lily and Sophia by Chinese actress Li Bingbing. Both manage to look beautiful even in the scenes of wartime poverty and unspeakable tragedy. The men are equally candy for the eyes, with Joy Luck Club alum Russell Wong making a cameo and Hugh Jackman playing Sophia’s cad-with-a-heart-of-gold Aussie boyfriend.
Yes, there are scenes of foot binding, opium, suicide, and the general Chinese-on-Chinese misogyny that I was dreading. Really, there is more to Chinese culture! There is also the namesake secret fan, on which Snowflower and Lily pass messages written in nu shu, a kind of Chinese script only known to women in a certain rural province. But those portrayals I can handle, because the movie is a depiction of those aspects of Chinese culture in historical context. It is a movie about 19th century ASIA, not Asian Americans. Plus, it's a big budget movie from a major studio, employing a nearly all-Asian cast.
With Wayne Wang (who directed The Joy Luck Club, as well as mainstream blockbusters such as Maid in Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie) directing the cinematography, the movie has that epic quality, with intricate period costumes and the patina of rural China. Ultimately, the cultural situation fades into the background of the movie’s main focus: the lifelong pledge of friendship between two women, and how difficult it is to sustain that bond in the face of changing relationships and life’s adversities. The movie wraps up with a conveniently happy conclusion that friendship conquers all (just don’t think too hard about the details).
Snowflower and the Secret Fan is not bad Chinese food, after all. If anything, it reminds me of dinner at P.F. Chang’s: a pretty good interpretation of Chinese food with snazzy packaging, designed to appeal to Western sensibilities. It’s still tasty and enjoyable. Just don’t read more into it than is there.
[Editor's Note: Speaking of Asian stereotypes in the movies, have you heard about the controversy surrounding the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservatory's public screening of Breakfast at Tiffany's? Should the film be boycotted for its racist portrayal of Mr. Yonioshi? Or could this be a teachable moment?]