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EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY
Part 1 of 4

(When Will the "Yellow Ceiling" be Raised)

Film Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Wendi Murdoch/Florence Sloan-produced film based on Lisa See's book "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is dependent on Wayne Wang's creative ambitions as a story-teller and desire to be known for more than being a "craftsman" to accurately portray the book's emotional themes of judgment, betrayal and atonement within their own “private and forbidden worlds” in Old China.

 


BREAKING EXISTING ENTERTAINMENT "LEGACY CODES" that have served as today’s barriers for Chinese films – along with Asian Pacific American projects - to achieve success in the United States, Florence Sloan and Wendi Murdoch wanted to share a story that transcended any perceived obstacles of a “Yellow Ceiling” through their film “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” . Paving a path of building bridges between the biggest and fastest growing entertainment markets in the world requires films by great story-tellers sharing passionate stories beyond the typical historical epics typically coming from China - the result of successfully getting films made and distributed in China. Wendi Murdoch and Florence Sloan hoped to be among the pioneers of this movement.

NOTING "CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON," "Hero" and "Fearless" are films that have achieved success despite being “period pieces” that American audiences perceive as inaccessible – films such as Jiang Wen’s “Let the Bullets Fly” (starring Chou Yun-fat), John Woo’s “Red Cliff,” Soi Cheang’s “The Monkey King” (starring Chou Yun-fat) and Feng Xiaogang’s “Aftershock” have not traveled well to the United States. High profiled films such as Dayyan Eng’s “Inseparable” (Kevin Spacey/Daniel Wu), John Cusak/Gong Li/Ken Watanabe’s “Shanghai,” Sherwood Hu’s “Amazing” – that is being co-produced by Shanghai Film Group/NBA, Endgame Entertainment’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt “Looper” (dramatization of the life of Marco Polo), RZA/Eli Roth’s “Hand with the Iron Glove” and others have encountered various obstacles in getting distributed in the United States. Wendi Murdoch and Florence Sloan believe that a film based on Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – a popular book that was published in 2005 – with its compelling universal themes of love, regret, commitment, judgment, betrayal and atonement – would greatly appeal to American film-going audiences.

SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN'S ORIGINAL STORY is a historically based account of a close but tumultuous relationship between two women in rural (Tongkou) Hunan province that is sustain through decades and marriage, childbirth, heartbreak, war and death by an oath of friendship. Paired at age 7 as lifetime companions in 1829, or laotong, by a matchmaker charged with finding them husbands, Lily (aka Baihe played by China's Li Bingbing) and Snow Flower (South Korea's Gianna Jun) – from the “Lu” clan - are bonded by being born under the same sign, having their feet bound on the same day and through a secret, female-only script called Nüshu, in which messages are written in the folds of a fan. Despite Snow Flower’s feet providing her a prestigious match while Lily is married to a lowly butcher (because of her father’s opium addiction ruining her family’s fortunes, their bonds continue and survived.

THE WAYNE WANG-ADDED secondary "modern story" involves Nina Wei (Shanghai career girl/bank employee) discovering that her estranged BFF (Best Friend Forever) - Liao Xuemei, aka Sophia Liao - was in an accident and in a coma. As a result, discovers that she was writing a novel about their friendship that began in high school through sharing common pleasures such as the music of Faye Wong – with its struggles with today’s life issues (i.e. Nina’s academic excellence, the suicide of Sophia’s father, etc.). The added storyline attempts to connect to the original tale by sharing that Sophia secretly returned from Sydney to Shanghai on her own to work on a about her great-great-grandmother Xuehua, aka Snow Flower.

LAOTONG (low-tahng) N., Chinese – (Literally “Old Same”): a lifelong, sworn bond of sisterhood between two female friends, intended to survive all the changes of life, including marriage and childbirth . . . and never to be broken

RECENT CHINESE MOVIE IMPORTS failed to connect with American audiences because the storytelling isn't ambitious were the words spoken by the film’s director Wayne Wang (“Joy Luck Club” and ‘A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” – among many others) and he sought to change that perception in “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” The creative writing partners in Mr. Wang’s ambitions consisted of Ron Bass (“Joy Luck Club” and “Snow Falling in Cedars”), Michael Ray (“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and “The Princess of Nebraska”) and Yale School of Drama graduate Angela Workman (“Brontë” and “War Bride”). Ronald J. Bass’ success of coordinating stories from a modern and historical perspective(s) in “Joy Luck Club” – along with his past projects regarding people speaking/thinking in different languages (“Rain Man”) and exploring female relationships (“Waiting to Exhale” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”) made him a key proponent of expressing Mr. Wang’s vision. Michael K. Ray’s past projects telling the personal struggles of Chinese immigrants living in the United States and China brought additional viewpoints from an American perspective. Angela Workman’s participation was strategic in communicating the film’s ambitions. Her passion is noted in her upcoming project “Brontë” about the three Brontë sisters emergence from the haven of their hidden fantasy worlds and unfortunate backgrounds to become history's most famous authors. The “secret poems” of Charlotte and Emily Brontë and the process of condensing intense lives, events and characters while covering a wide spectrum of cultural, historical and sociological background appears to be the backbone of the film. One could envision some similarities between the isolation suffered by the Brontë sisters and “Sworn Sisters,” though they differed greatly in scope and length to the fates suffered by these women such as Yang Huanyi - the lady that Lisa See met during her extensive research. It is a daunting task to compare the Brontë sisters’ limited environment to China’s “sworn sisters” who were totally isolated from the world (initially in their parent’s home between the ages of seven to seventeen and from the time they are married to their deaths) while being virtual prisoners hobbled by their bound feet and illiterate in the writings of men that resulted in writing nüshu works (aka "third day missives") to be delivered to their counterparts on the third day after the young woman's marriage to express their hopes of happiness and sorrows for being parted from her.

WAYNE WANG 'S VISUAL VISION

Wang began by dividing the film into two diametrically opposed sets of aesthetics. “For the period sections of the film, when we are in 19th Century Pu Wei, I wanted the scenes to look like frames of paintings. We looked at a lot of 19th Century art from China and around the world to come up with a feeling that would be very colorful and richly textured, almost like Rembrandts.” He goes on: “Then, for the contemporary scenes, we made a great contrast. The colors are all very cool, with grey walls and pale clothing, and there’s lot of fluid camera motion. For the 90s, we went for more of a Technicolor look, more dream-like and stylized.”

WAYNE WANG

He was born and raised in Hong Kong, and moved to Los Altos, California in 1967. For two years he lived on a radical Quaker ranch, doing chores in exchange for rent, and attending college nearby. Then he decided to study film production at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, an education he augmented by avidly watching the films of the French New Wave, German New Cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Satyajit Ray.

He later returned to Hong Kong and got a job directing a popular television series, BELOW THE LION ROCK, for RTHK-TV (the Hong Kong equivalent of PBS) but he found that he did not fit into the traditionalist system and returned to the U.S. where he got involved with the Asian American community in the Bay Area.

In 1982, with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute, Wang made CHAN IS MISSING, in which two cabbies search through San Francisco’s Chinatown for the mysterious Chan, a man who’s made off with their hard-earned dough. “Although the character of Chan is never seen through the film,” says Wang, “I must have identified with him. He’s a resident of Chinatown but he’s missing. He belongs there but he’s an outsider at the same time.” Wang also wanted to show another Chinatown – the one behind the scenes with its temperamental chefs and internal politics that have more to do with the divide between Taiwan and China than triads. “Unlike Hollywood filmmakers, I didn’t use Chinatown as a signifier of mysterious Oriental doom,” he says. “I took my characters and audience into its very real streets.”

Wang is often identified with films about the Chinese Diaspora, including the film adaptation of THE JOY LUCK CLUB. However, he has also made such independent features as SMOKE and BLUE IN THE FACE, both starring Harvey Keitel and set in Brooklyn, and the romantic comedy MAID IN MANHATTAN starring Jennifer Lopez. At the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, Wang premiered two feature films, A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS and THE PRINCESS OF NEBRASKA, and he also appeared in Arthur Dong’s documentary film HOLLYWOOD CHINESE. Wang won the Golden Shell for Best Film at the 2007 San Sebastian Film Festival for A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS.

He is married to former actress Cora Miao, who appeared in three of his films, DIM SUM, EAT A BOWL OF TEA AND LIFE IS CHEAP… BUT TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE. They live in San Francisco and New York City.

WAYNE WANG'S AMBITIONS, need to avoid the "craftsman" label and eclectic thirst for invention (i.e.”Smoke Blue in the Face” and “The Center of the Earth” – along with the indie production of "Life Is Cheap ... but Toilet Paper Is Expensive") was integrated within his presentation of Lisa See’s book by including the creation/invention of a parallel “modern” storyline by his writers. His belief that the “Sworn Sisters” from China’s Shanghai in the 21st century and laotongs from the rural Northern Jiangyong County (formerly Yong Ming County) of Hunan province during the early 19th century share common commitments and obstacles seems to be an extension of his words to be a “filmmaker straddling different cultures . . . trying to make films that appeal to all audiences.” With the \two main female characters of both stories played by the same two actresses, the film asks audiences to believe that life for women in China’s most “Westernized” city of today’s Shanghai has many of the cultural long-embedded sex-segregated cultural restrictions of their counterparts in rural China during the 19th century that led them to create a "Dong language" (aka “Nüshu”) – even though nüshu nearly became extinct as the primary reasons that women used it disappeared (desire of establishing very deep and meaningful friendship based on love – along with suffering, loneliness and companionship that couldn’t share to anybody else) especially in today’s Internet Age. As Lisa See shared “Young women today no longer need to learn Nüshu as part of a deeply embedded social custom and survival tool. Their feet aren't bound, they're literate, and they work outside the home where they can meet their friends. Nowadays, young women learn the language as one might learn a national dance or a folksong. They're preserving and honoring the past, but it has no direct meaning to or purpose in their lives.” With Lisa See’s book embedded within an intimate knowledge of history and an appreciation of the cultural underpinnings that served as the foundation for understanding the unusually deep and long-standing emotional commitments between two females, along with producers Florence Sloan and Wendi Murdoch’s words “We wanted to be true to the book” – it was an interesting decision to work with a director who stated “I’m not a real period person because it takes such painful detail.”

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Lisa See

 

 

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