Director Wayne Wang has never been a director that could be easily pigeonholed. He broke through with a trifecta of critical and arthouse faves with “The Joy Luck Club,” “Smoke” and “Blue In the Face,” but he’s also tackled more mainstream fare (”Maid In Manhattan,” “Last Holiday”) while still taking chances on ambitious independent pics (”The Center of the World”). So it’s no surprise that his next effort, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” is another gear change for the director, a detailed period piece based on the novel by Lisa See that explores the relationship between two girls in 19th-century China who are matched by laotong — a bonded friendship that is regarded as having ties as strong or stronger than that of marriage.
We now have an exclusive first peek at the film (full picture below) and it looks to be an exquisitely rendered period piece. But in speaking with Wayne Wang recently, he revealed that while he initially had some reservations about taking on the project, he found a way to structure the film in a compelling way while staying true to the intentions of the book.
“I’m not a real period person because it just takes such painful detail,” Wang explained. “I’m a very detail [oriented] person, so to do period you really have to go into details and you have to research it and you have to get everything right and I’m not willing to settle for things. That’s why I don’t go into period very much at all.”
Certainly, trying to nail down the intricacies of a period film is a very daunting task, but Wang ended up being very pleased by the whole experience. “I really enjoyed it,” Wang said. “What I did was I kept it simple so I don’t have to deal with a lot elements, and kept it almost like a theater palette. Every shot is a proscenium and it’s beautifully done, and it’s controlled, and all the details are correct…..And I really ended up enjoying it a lot. It’s a whole different way of working, and it came out really nice. [It’s interesting because] it’s period, it’s all accurate but I was also able to stylize it a little bit. Otherwise I would feel like I’m just like a craftsmen recreating a period situation in a period set.”
And while period fare isn’t something Wang naturally gravitates toward, the director found a smart way to tackle the story. “I proposed this new structure by combining a modern day story also with the period story, and [the producers] liked it, and we started [working on it],” Wang said. While the film will tell the story of the titular Snow Flower and her friend Lily, the film will also shed light on their descendants living in present day Shanghai who struggle to retain their own bond with the differences and similarities of their respective situations playing out on screen.
But what also attracted Wang to the film was the opportunity to tell a part of Chinese history about women that has never really been seen on screens before. “There’s so much about what women have gone through that has never been on the screen. Whether it’s in China, or here. I just felt very strongly this story has to be told,” the director explained. “Things such as feet-binding, things such as this really contractual, very emotional marriage between women called laotong, and things such as the nu shu which is a women’s language they wrote to each other that they only understood. All these things are [topics] I wanted to talk about. And no one has really done this kind of story.”
So, with this focus on two friendships in different periods of Shanghai history, it might seem to be a strange fit for Hugh Jackman who, as it was revealed last year, makes a cameo appearance in the film. But Wang has long been impressed with Jackman’s stage talent and found a way to incorporate him into the film. “I saw him on Broadway in [‘The Boy From Oz‘] and — he’s a great song and dance guy — and I enjoyed him so much in that show and I’ve always wanted to do something like that with him. And then, in the script, there was a character that came up who is in Shanghai and he runs a lot of clubs and he recreates some old Shanghai songs and I just thought it would be great to hear Hugh Jackman sing in Chinese.”
“He did great. He is good with languages. I thought it would take him weeks at least to learn the song but he learned it pretty quickly,” Wang said about his performance in the film. But he’s keeping mum on where in the film it will appear saying, “It is a very lighthearted moment that leads to a traumatic moment, I won’t say more about it [laughs].”
Starring Gianna Jun and Li Bing Bing, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” will hit theaters on July 15th.