Lifelong female friendship is the subject of this lush weepie, in which a pair of interlinked tales unfold in two timeframes: the 21st-century Shanghai of skyscrapers and business careers; and 19th-century Hunan province, a world of foot-binding and female subjugation.
In the modern frame are Nina (Li Bingbing) and her Korean foster sister Sophia (Gianna Jun) – two laotong or soul sisters, bound together for life even when physically apart. In flashback unfolds the older story in which two equivalent laotong, Snow Flower and Lily, are played by
the same actors.
Parallel narratives can be tricky to pull off, but Snow Flower’s director Wayne Wang and co-screenwriter Ronald Bass had already mastered the form in their satisfying 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club. Here Bass returns, joined by two co-writers, though something has gone awry.
Lisa See’s source novel was set entirely in the 19th century. In adding the modern framing story, the writers have added complication without the necessary dramatic clarity or emotional resonance. As a result, while the film is undeniably lovely to look at, it’s somewhat remote. We’re told there’s deep emotion on the screen, but it’s hard to feel it.