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Movie Review

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Women get across centuries but not to the audience

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / July 22, 2011

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"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’’ is about two women in different Chinese centuries trying to be friends with the fetish part getting in the way. I know what you’re thinking, and all I’m saying is Lisa See wrote a hit novel, and now Wayne Wang has made a film of it. You can ignore that, since the movie more or less does. Both works have the same name, but I suspect that one has See completely baffled. Did she mean for her book about the little-known 19th-century ritual of women bound to each other in a kind of emotional arranged marriage to become something sure to delight lonely, hotel-bound, channel-surfing businessmen?

For some reason, the movie Hula-Hoops between a friendship of two centuries ago and this one. In both scenarios, the women are played by Li Bing Bing and the Korean star Gianna Jun, two likable actors who are in over their heads. In the period incarnation they speak in rich, modulated Mandarin - well, Li seems to do more of the talking. In the 21st-century scenes (2007, 2011, “6 months earlier,’’ “6 months later’’), they speak what European subway trains advertise as Wall Street English, though Li and Jun do so with a flat, breathy girlishness that usually precedes a knock on the door and the arrival of a man with a tearaway UPS uniform. Cruelly, that man is not Hugh Jackman, who makes a late-act appearance as the crooning Australian lover of one these women. (On a loosely related note, “Snow Flower’’ has been co-produced by Wendi Deng, the wife of besieged Australian-American Rupert Murdoch, for his Fox Searchlight Pictures.)

Wang has spent the latter half of his career as a commercial filmmaker of good taste and deep compassion, often where women are involved. “Slam Dance,’’ “The Joy Luck Club,’’ “Anywhere But Here,’’ and “Last Holiday’’ are his. If this new movie is bearable at all, it’s because you trust that he is up to something less queasy than crypto-prurience. Working with three credited screenwriters - Angela Workman, Michael K. Ray, and the Hollywood veteran Ronald Bass, who also adapted “Joy Luck’’ - Wang wants to intertwine the suppression of the 19th-century furtively strong Chinese woman with her modern globalized progeny.

Sadly, the latter part of that recipe is an impure invention and lacks both its older, rural counterpart’s intellectual underpinning and history’s clarifying distance. It’s also just dull. The rise of China and its trampling march has been explored with vision, humor, heat, and inventive form in the films of Jia Zhangke. There’s some wonderful framing and ebullient costuming in the 19th-century sequences, but the movie comes alive when Jackman slathers a Beijing dance floor with the cheese of his charisma. Of course, he then has to act opposite Li, which looks like trying to bounce a basketball on sand.

The yesteryear business of friendship amid wartime and domestic upheaval becomes the present-day business of business, while, in a comically reductive bit of social judgment, the excruciating intricacies of the ancient ritual of foot-binding are reduced to a shot of Li slipping out of her designer pumps. (Ladies, if you knew what your forebears went through, you would go barefoot.) The sight of her and Jun frolicking in tracksuits is a cute harbinger of a movie that never quite comes to pass: “The Beijing Girl’s Guide to Salt-N-Pepa.’’

It’s unclear what else the makers of this movie hoped to arouse in us. All the two actresses do is gaze out of apartment and carriage windows, through floorboards, into each other’s eyes, and, once, while wishfully wearing a man’s suit. The English they speak seems meant as passive-aggressive teases and taunts: “I won’t bother you anymore. I’m going to New York’’ or “I had to make you hate me.’’ That sort of dialogue is accompanied by a piano twinkle and sloppy erotic tension, and the combination reminds me of the days when they still made bad lesbian movies like “Claire of the Moon’’ and “Bar Girls.’’ The emotional struggles here are just as earnest. But it’s hard to tell whether this is a tribute to female solidarity or a lamentation.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN Directed by: Wayne Wang

Written by: Angela Workman, Michael K. Ray, and Ronald Bass, adapted from the novel by Lisa See

Starring: Li Bing Bing, Gianna Jun, and Hugh Jackman

At: Kendall Square and West Newton

Running time: 100 minutes

In English and Mandarin, with English subtitles

Rated: PG-13 (sexuality, some drug use, and violence involving feet)

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