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EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY
Part 2 of 4

(When Will the "Yellow Ceiling" be Raised)

Film Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The problem was that there were three films in one. There’s the teenagers growing up in the ’90s in addition to the modern and period piece. We shot so much material I found that I had three films going on and that’s why I ended up simplifying a lot of stuff. It was one the most problematic films for me in the editing room. At one point a cut a version that was just a period piece — I actually threw out the modern story. In another version there is very little of the modern story and it was mostly period. There are many different versions! (Wayne Wang)

 

 

THE FILM'S "MODERN" PARALLEL STORY required greater deft story-telling rooted in prodigious research and erudition that provides the context and analysis for audiences to understand why there are two stories – the first consisting of a time where Chinese women sacrificed any notion of independence or personal dreams how the other story of women confronted with too many choices to make a decision on in too short of a time expanded and/or provided more insights. Noting Mr. Wang’s expertise in his words “I would feel like I’m just like a craftsmen recreating a period situation in a period set” - apparently the secondary story (written by Ron Bass and Michael K. Ray to Angela Workman's traditional approach) was included to translate a sense of history into today’s realities to provide a greater understanding of the deep emotions and commitments of laotongs while seeking to broaden the film’s appeal. As Mr. Wong stated "I didn't want people to go away from the movie thinking Chinese culture is all about foot binding and macho males," he said — but also because the city "is so relentlessly contemporary now. It's almost like New York mixed with Las Vegas."

MANY MIGHT ASK would today's young Shanghai women understand and/or be part of a laotong relationship that involves two girls from different villages with eight matched characteristics (i.e. foot size, economic situation, birthday, etc. to confirm that they were the “same”) and that lasted their entire lives while a sworn sisterhood is made up of several girls and dissolves at marriage as noted in films such as the Sandra Bullock/Ashley Judd-starrer "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." Would any lasting female relationship in Shanghai during the 21st century be built on the foundation of Lily and Snow Flower’s relationship that consisted of both being born in the Year of the Horse, the same day, the same hour, same number of brothers and sisters, identical height/equal beauty, feet bound on the same day and being the third child. In addition, since in the added modern story - “Nina” is a Chinese from South Korea, the creative decision to ignore the complicated histories between China and Korea was was fascinating. Audiences were left wondering about the implied/alluded/suggested push and pull between platonic and erotic relationships between the two female characters in both stories. It is interesting to note that Lisa See shared that the parts that were true to the novel were good, but that the modern elements had no relation to the book at all.

LISA SEE

She was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles. She lived with her mother, but spent a lot of time with her father’s family in Chinatown. Her first book, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, was a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. The book traces the journey of Lisa’s great-grandfather, Fong See, who overcame obstacles at every step to become the 100-year-old godfather of Los Angeles’ Chinatown and the patriarch of a sprawling family.

Her first novel, Flower Net, which was a national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and on the Los Angeles Times Best Books List for 1997. Flower Net was also nominated for an Edgar award for best first novel. This was followed by two more mystery-thrillers, The Interior and Dragon Bones, which once again featured the characters of Liu Hulan and David Stark. This series inspired critics to compare Ms. See to Upton Sinclair, Dashiell Hammett, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

After becoming a New York Times Bestselling author with her beloved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in 2005, See has gone on to complete three more novels. In 2007, Peony In Love was heralded by People magazine as a “thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human” and gave See her second New York Times Bestseller. After Peony in Love, she decided to center her next novel on two Shanghai sisters, Pearl and May, and their journey of a lifetime out of China, through the southern villages of China, and across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles. Shanghai Girls became her third New York Times Best Seller, and it’s follow up and sequel, Dreams of Joy, recently became See’s first New York Times #1 Bestseller. \

See was the Publishers Weekly West Coast Correspondent for thirteen years. As a freelance journalist, her articles have appeared in Vogue, Self, and More, as well as in numerous book reviews around the country.
She wrote the libretto for Los Angeles Opera based On Gold Mountain, which premiered in June 2000 at the Japan American Theatre, followed by the Irvine Barclay Theatre. She also served as guest curator for an exhibit on the Chinese-American experience for the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, which then traveled to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in 2001. Ms. See then helped develop and curate the Family Discovery Gallery at the Autry Museum, an interactive space for children and their families that focuses on Lisa’s bi-racial, bi-cultural family as seen through the eyes of her father as a seven-year-old boy living in 1930s Los Angeles.

See serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument Authority. She was honored as National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001 and was the recipient of the Chinese American Museum’s History Makers Award in Fall 2003.

WHAT WAS MR. WANG'S UNDERSTANDING of the differences between a sworn sisterhood where all seven-year-old girls of a village were having their feet bound, their mothers helped them form a sworn sisterhood that dissolved when the girls were married at the age of seventeen versus a laotong relationship that consisted of having eight matched characteristics that would last their entire lives – an “emotional marriage” when| emotions didn't enter into marriages between men and women (as per Lisa See’s words). Can today’s Shanghai young women (who are envied throughout China because of their public image of having exciting and fulfilling lives – aka “Shanghai Princesses”) who enjoy the benefits of a university education that would be completely out of reach to their own parents, making salaries that ten years ago would be considered a fortune while willing/able to spend up to three months salary on one designer bag (along with purchasing other high-end shoes, cell phones, etc.) be able to relate to Snow Flower? They do have issues of finding a “good man” (translation: somebody with house – in today’s astronomical high prices for houses in downtown Shanghai/car/money/good job) where the saying ‘No House No Car’, ‘no money – no honey’ is the common phrase. Do these girls, who have been transformed into ‘Zhai Nu/Zhai Nan‘ (stay-at-home girls who are preoccupied in their bedrooms to watching Korean soap operas on Youku.com on their laptops while they wait for Mr. Right with little need for domestic skills such as cooking) relate to the plight of Snow Flower? Can Shanghai’s so-called “leftover women” — the sheng nu identify with Snow Flower? Would today’s Shanghai women accept Lily’s aunt description of a laotong match - “A laoton relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose – to have sons.”

WAYNE WANG STATED “Ultimately what appealed to me was the possibility of incorporating into this ancient story a modern female friendship set against today's China . . . 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.” Their new direction seems to be the creative team’s interpretation of Lisa See’s words that her book is “about friendship and what it means to be a woman . . . our lives are completely different from those lived by the Nüshu writers, but inside we are the same. We want people to hear our thoughts, appreciate our creativity, and feel empathy for our emotions. . . we still long for love, friendship, happiness, tranquility, and to be heard.” Was Mr. Wong’s added “modern” storyline intended to add a greater understanding, provide a supposedly picture of today’s Shanghai women (though different than what was described above) or be an allegorical commentary noted in his words “often think life would be much richer if we valued our friendships the way that laotong did.” Given Mr. Wang’s words ““Things such as feet-binding, things such as this really contractual, very emotional marriage between women called laotong, and things such as the Nüshu 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” – why was there a need to add another story if he wanted to stay true to the intentions of Lisa See’s book?

Did you know that
Wayne Wang's mother
had bound feet?

ONE WONDERS WHY wasn't the option of exploring the connection between the writer and the story (ala Rob Reiner “Stand By Me”) considered or used since the character of “Lily” had a strong connection to the author Lisa See while personifying her mother’s view that suffering is the only authentic emotion since it cannot be faked, ignored or glossed over. As the author stated – “In many ways Lily's voice and her view of life were easy. She reminded me of my grandmother, great-aunt, and other female relatives—Chinese or not—at the end of their lives. To a person, they had felt tremendous regret that they hadn't been better wives, mothers, or friends, but they each also had at least one episode in their lives that gnawed at them and they hoped fruitlessly to somehow make amends.”

FOOT BINDING

For ten centuries, Chinese women underwent an extraordinary procedure designed to permanently transform the human body: the practice of foot binding. It began in the 10th Century and continued well into the 20th, when the practice was finally outlawed – and it impacted the lives of millions of Chinese girls and women.

Historical records indicate that the roots of foot binding go back to the Song Dynasty, when the Chinese ruler Li Yu fell madly in love with a dancer who bound her feet into the slender shape of a new moon and danced on a lotus platform, which the arts-loving emperor found intoxicatingly beautiful. Soon it became the standard of beauty, with tiny, compacted feet considered the height of elegance, refinement and erotic allure. With women in the royal court binding their feet, and those of their daughters, the trend spread outwards into the populace. Foot binding became a female status symbol, a source of power and esteem, in a world where almost everything else was denied to women.

By the 19th Century, bound feet were found on nearly every wealthy woman in China, and had become one of the few ways young women from lower classes could hope for upward mobility and marriage to a wealthier man. The lengthy, agonizing binding process was started in childhood, between the ages of 3 and 7, when soft, malleable toes and arches were broken, then compressed daily with tight straps and bandages that folded the toes underneath the sole, squeezing and constricting the entire foot until it formed the desired 3-inch shape. Despite the pain, girls undergoing foot binding had to walk on their broken feet daily to become used to the balance, which led to an unusual, swaying walking style, known as “The Lotus Gait.”

The procedure, which was either performed by professional foot-binders, by mothers or another female member of the family, was excruciating for children. It sometimes resulted in deadly infections or feet that were almost non-functional, too painful to walk on for long periods of time, which further limited a woman’s freedom. Yet, at the same time, bound feet could also be a path to greater opportunity – holding out the promise of a better life for their children.

Although controversy surrounded the practice for centuries, foot binding was not formally banned until 1912. Even then, women continued to bind their feet in more remote areas for several more decades until missionaries, early Chinese feminists and the Communists who came to power in the 1940s began anti foot binding campaigns. Ironically, the anti foot binding movements of the mid 20th Century turned women with bound feet into pariahs who were now set apart by the very limbs that had once been the height of beauty. In the 1990s, the last shops selling the traditional 3-inch “lotus shoes” for women with bound feet closed.

WITNESSING MANY LOST OPPORTUNITIES of sharing Lisa See’s great story, one can only imagine the magical pictures/scenes/stories thatcould have been presented of the character “Lily” making amends for past regrets (along with the other emotional themes of judgment, betrayal and atonement within their own “private and forbidden worlds” integrated throughout the novel) – a powerful emotion that can be identified by all. Imagine the creative challenges, opportunities and ambition to utilized the two lead female actresses’ reliance on unspoken communications (since China’s Li Bingbing and South Korea’s Gianna Jun didn’t speak English – having learned the dialogue phonetically – and neither speaking the other’s language) – an element seen in many great Hollywood and international films. Imagine if Wayne Wang had embraced Lisa See utilizing Lily to narrate the story from her perspective as an old woman in her “sitting quietly” days – ala James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Since Li Bingbing shared that she treated her character in both stories as separate, having audiences learn about the essence of the main characters’ relationship though a simple gesture, a soft touch, a gentle hug and/or a compassionate look of longing could have served as the common denominator and thread that served as the foundation for both stories for both the viewer and actrresses. Imagine what a great ambition it would have been to communicate how women throughout history have in common the same needs, as shared by Lisa See – “We want someone to hear us and to understand us and to feel sympathy and empathy for the things that we go through. Many of us look an entire lifetime to find a friend, a husband, a boyfriend, whatever the relationship is, like that. And many of us never find it."

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Lisa See

 

 

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