These days, Wayne Wang works in two different modes as a filmmaker and they rarely intersect.
The Wang responsible for sizable operations like "Maid in Manhattan" and "Because of Winn-Dixie" has little in common with the Wang behind comparably microbudget productions like "The Princess of Nebraska" (which premiered on YouTube) and his latest work, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," another under-the-radar release (albeit through Fox Searchlight, which is putting much more attention toward next's week's "Another Earth.")
As it does for Steven Soderbergh, this constant oscillation between projects big and small allows Wang to alternate between exploring stories for mass and niche audiences. Unlike Soderbergh, however, the freedom that Wang finds with his alternative mode doesn't always heighten his creative finesse. While indisputably beautiful and affecting in parts, "Snow Flower" is dominated by tame dramatic ingredients that never fully gel.
It's a dense and multilayered story: In modern times, Nina (Li Bingbin) rushes to the hospital bed of her estranged friend Sophia (Gianna Jun) after a biking accident puts her in a coma. Weighed down by guilt, Nina reconsiders their bond, which takes place through a number of stylish flashbacks. These explore the nature of their connection, a pairing known as "laotong" that describes the relationship of two women pledged to lifelong friendship.
Using the same actresses, Wang follows the two girls' 19th century ancestors, Snow Flower (Jun) and Lily (Lily), as their connection becomes frayed when their lives move in opposite directions. The same issue afflicts Nina and Sophia in Nina's flashbacks: When they grow older, various personal and professional pull them to different parts of the world.
The structure of the screenplay (by Angela Workman, Ron Bass, and Michael K. Ray) allows past and present comment on each other in unison. Wang's ability to portray the role of women in Chinese society, a motif he has touched on many times before, gives the movie its principle raison d'être.
Once he shows Snow Flower and Lily having their feet forcibly contained to a child-like size by their elders, an archaic ritual thought to attract husbands, the contemporary scenes imply that Nina and Sophia quite literally walk in those miniature footsteps. The career-driven Nina rejects China's sexist mores, while Sophia plays directly into them, allowing herself to become arm candy for a traveling New Zealand entrepreneur (Hugh Jackman, in a handful of scenes, and not listed in the movie's credits).
While their conflict maintains some basic appeal because of the larger social issues they address, "Snow Flower" eventually wears down its momentum with the constant, repetitive nature of its time-hopping narrative. The 19th-century scenes are adapted from the 2005 novel by Lisa See, but in "Snow Flower" they enter the picture when Nina discovers Sophia's manuscript describing the historical events in question. That's a handy device for broadening a rudimentary plot to epic proportions, but it doesn't earn the expansion. It meanders from one period to the next, never unpleasant nor particularly involving. A classically sentimental fable, replete with a wailing soundtrack and teary moments of reconciliation, "Snow Flower" feels about as constricted as its troubled protagonists' feet.
"The world is always changing," says one character in the 19th century. The line inevitably comments on the other era, where Shanghai continues to rapidly develop even as it maintains strong ties to the values of the past. Wang relies on that perspective to give "Snow Flower" the aura of importance, and initially succeeds, but the overarching philosophy gradually dissolves in a string of pretty pictures.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Released by Fox Searchlight with virtually no mainstream buzz, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" has the potential to do major business in the niche marketplace of Asian-American moviegoers, many of whom will relish the opportunity to see a unique project of this nature that contains English and Chinese actors in an American production.