Having read and loved Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle), I was looking forward to watching the movie adaptation. I missed the theatrical run, and so waited patiently for it come out on DVD. Unfortunately, this is a terrible adaptation of a heartbreakingly beautiful work, taking too many artistic liberties, and butchering the story in such a manner as to render it incomprehensible to those who read and loved the book. If you watch this movie without having read the book, then it might appeal on some level, but to those who savored the detailed descriptions of traditions in 19th century China, and the close bond between the two central characters, i.e. Snow Flower and Lily, this movie seems such an aberration and I truly felt let down.
The movie takes a different approach than the novel in that it has two parallel story lines - one set in the present featuring two young women who are kindred spirits, but whose friendship is eventually strained by conflicting ideas regarding relationships, lifestyle, etc. On the same day that she receives news that she has a job opportunity in New York, Nina (Li BingBing) receives news that her estranged best friend, Sophia (Gianna Jun) has been in an accident and is in hospital. As Nina goes through Sophia's things at the hospital, she comes across a manuscript, parts of a story of two women in 19th century China, whose friendship mirror Nina and Sophia's own close bond.
The trouble is that this parallel storyline does not work - by dividing the story up into two disparate timelines, not much time is spent in developing the central characters. The most affected here is the story in the present - viewers are given brief glimpses of Nina and Sophia bonding over music etc. but their friendship is meant to be an unbreakable bond and this is not credibly portrayed. The story of the two laotongs or "old sames" (sort of like sisters of the heart) set in 19th century China is much more credibly portrayed, ironically played by the same actresses playing the parts of Nina and Sophia in the present.
Lily and Snow Flower are the laotongs, coming from two very different social classes. The poorer of the two, Lily, has her feet bound to perfection under the supervision of a zealous mother. The scenes of foot binding are rather uncomfortable to watch, but they are nowhere near as gruesome as the graphic descriptions provided by Ms. See in her novel. Lily's perfect lotus bud feet eventually garner her a very advantageous marriage, but poor Snow Flower ends up being married off to a butcher despite her rich beginnings.
In the novel, readers are given a deep insight into the secret language of women, i.e. nushu which provides an intimate glimpse into the lives of women in 19th century China (historically nushu was the language used by the women of the Yao ethnic minority). Reading between the lines, readers get the idea that it is Snow Flower who has a more interesting sex life than Lily, but in the movie, viewers get a brief glimpse of this, not through nushu, but of Lily playing peeping tom. It just completely put me off - such short cuts when it was completely unnecessary, not to mention detracting from the very essence of the novel.
Then there's the disaster in the form of Aussie actor Hugh Jackman (it begs the question, why did he stoop to such a role in the first place?). Any actor could have played his role, but I guess the filmmakers thought they could get the movie more exposure with a star presence? Jackman plays Sophia's on-off lover and his most 'memorable' scene here is him serenading Sophia at a party and indulging in some serious liplocking. Sigh...need I continue?
Final verdict - fans of the novel should steer away from this disaster of an adaptation, and those who haven't read the book will probably not miss much, though I'd recommend the book over the movie anytime.