A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this book-based drama set in both present-day and 19th-century China explores complicated but sustaining friendships among women. In some ways, it's an uplifting tale that teens might find interesting, but the storytelling is uneven, and some themes/plot lines -- opium addiction, persecution, pervasive repression of women -- may be too intense for younger viewers. There's some drinking and period-accurate substance abuse; one scene of a married couple having sex shows a man atop a woman, with his naked back visible.
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What's the story?
As close as sisters since childhood, Nina (Bingbing Li) and Sophia (Gianna Jun) are on the brink of losing the thread of their friendship. They haven't seen each other since a falling out, and Nina is set to move from Shanghai to New York. But on the eve of her departure, Sophia is hospitalized after her bike is hit by a car. She had been working on a book about Snow Flower (Jun) and Lily (Li), two girls who've made a pact to be each other's laotong (a matchmaker-made sisterhood) in 1800s China. Their feet bound, their futures set by others, they nevertheless manage to support each other as they make their way in a world besieged by revolutions, class differences, and gender imbalances.
Is it any good?
It's clear that the people who made the big-screen version of SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN encountered many challenges. It's often difficult adapting a novel, especially a literary one like Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, into a movie. The pitfalls are great: How to condense so much action into a seamless whole? How to translate the lyricism of words into images? What we get here is a hodge-podge of sometimes-stunning visual poetry, lethargic pacing, unevenly developed characters, unexplained motivations, and two story lines, one of which is far more compelling than the other.
Glimpses of the painful process of foot-binding and the repression of women in China's past are truncated, leaving us wanting more. Splintering the storytelling between 19th-century China and modern-day Shanghai renders the present irrelevant and, frankly, uninteresting. For all the glitter and glamour of cosmopolitan Shanghai, what's more intriguing is the history and friendships from the past. How did women cope? Why didn't the nu shu language survive? Did every woman have a laotong? So many questions, so few answers, so little satisfaction. But, hey, Hugh Jackman makes an appearance ... leaving us more perplexed than ever.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the movie depicts repressive practices like foot binding. How did it affect women in China? What repercussions did it have? What does the movie say about the treatment of women, both in the past and today?
What does the movie say about female friendships? How do they compare to romantic relationships?
- In theaters: July 15, 2011
- On DVD or streaming: November 1, 2011
- Cast: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Hugh Jackman, Vivian Wu
- Director: Wayne Wang
- Studio: Fox Searchlight
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 120 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: sexuality, violence/disturbing images and drug use
- Last updated: February 28, 2020
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