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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

October 31st, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was directed by Wayne Wang, who first came to prominence when he made The Joy Luck Club. He also made several other independent films that explored the Asian-American experience. He went on to make a number of mainstream Hollywood films as well, like Maid in Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie. None of these films lived up to his earlier films. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was seen as a possible return to form and the advance buzz was stronger than most limited releases are blessed with. Unfortunately, the hype didn't translate into ticket sales and it petered out after hitting $1 million in limited release. Limited release is always a risk, but did this film deserve better?

The Movie

The film begins in present day Shanghai at a celebration dinner for Sebastian and Nina, who are being sent to New York by their company to open a new branch. Her best friend, Sophia, tries to call her but can't get through. Later than night Sophia gets into a car accident and lapses into a coma while at the hospital. The hospital calls Nina because she was the last number Sophia tried to call. Nina goes to visit Sophia in the hospital and while there asks herself, "How did we end up here?"

To answer that question, we flashback to 1997 when Nina and Sophia were kids. They were best friends, despite Sophia's step-mother's objections. She thinks Nina is too good for Sophia. Nina's family is a lot more welcoming to Sophia. As teenagers, they learn about Laotong, or sworn sisters. Sophia's mother's mother's mother's mother, Snow Flow, had a laotong named Lily, who was Nina's mother's mother's mother's mother. The pair decide to sign a Laotong between the two of them.

Flashing back to the modern day, Nina is waiting by Sophia's bed when she looks though her friend's belongings and find's an untitled, unfinished manuscript for a story about Snow Flower and Lily. When then flash back again to 1829 in the Hunan province and see the story of the friendship between Snow Flower and Lily, and how it parallels the friendship between Nina and Sophia. And this is where we start to run into spoilers.

The two most recent reviews I've done prior to this film were for Cars 2 and Water for Elephants, and this film kind of reminded me of a combination of those two films. Bear with me, while the comparison seems out of left field, it does make sense. This film's Tomatometer Score was very low, the lowest in Wayne Wang's career. And like Cars 2, it was lower than it deserved to be. However, like Water for Elephants, while there are parts that work, especially the look of the film, there are parts that simply don't work, the emotional heart of the film. The emotional heart is obviously a whole lot more important to the overall quality of the film.

We are told repeatedly how these two ladies were great friends, both in the past and in the present, but we don't really get to know why. We only briefly see Nina and Sophia or Snow Flower and Lily act as friends. For most of the film, we see them as they have drifted apart. Because we never get a sense why these two were friends, seeing them drift apart doesn't have an emotional resonance. Melodrama replaces character development. The parallel storylines add an additional complication to the movie, without adding value to the story.

On the other hand, the costume drama portion of the film is wonderful to look at.

The Extras

Extras on the DVD / Blu-ray are limited to a single featurette, The Sworn Sisterhood of the Secret Fan. This 29-minute featurette looks at the creation of the story from the initial inspiration for the book, to when the producers discovered the book, etc. It's quite in-depth and as an extra, it is worth checking out. As the only extra, it is a disappointment, however.

There are no exclusive extras on the Blu-ray, but at least the film looks amazing on high definition. The clarity is excellent, the colors pop, the blacks are deep, while you don't have to worry about compression issues or print damage. On the other hand, the Blu-ray costs 47% more than the DVD, which is more than I would normally like to spend.

The Verdict

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is not as bad as its Tomatometer Score would indicate. It earned just 19% positive reviews, which usually means avoid at all costs. While it is better than that, not enough works for an overall recommendation. If you like costume dramas set in Imperial China, then it might be worth checking out. However, even then, the DVD and Blu-ray are only worth a rental.

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Filed under: Video Review, Water for Elephants, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan