Inspired by the bestselling novel SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Lisa See, the film tells the story of seven‐year‐old girls Snow Flower and Lily, in 19th century China, who had their feet bound at the same age and on the same day, which sealed their fates together as laotongs - bound together for eternity. Isolated in their marriages, they furtively communicate by taking turns writing in a secret language, nu shu, between the folds of a white silk fan.
In a parallel story in present day Shanghai, the laotong's descendants, Nina and Sophia, struggle to maintain the intimacy of their own childhood friendship in the face of demanding careers, complicated love lives, and a relentlessly evolving Shanghai. Drawing on the lessons of the past, the two modern women must understand the story of their ancestral connection, hidden from them in the folds of the antique white silk fan, or risk losing one another forever.
What unfolds are two stories, generations apart, but everlasting in their universal notion of love, hope and friendship.
DIRECTOR'S STATEMENT - WAYNE WANG
The following condensed passage from the post note of Lisa See's book moved me to make this film: "We, as women, want people to hear our thoughts, appreciate our creativity, and feel sympathy for our emotions. As daughters, we have all experienced complicated relationships with our mothers. As mothers, we have all felt deep terror when one of our children got sick. As wives, we have all at one time or another wondered about the true and everlasting mystery of the men in our lives. On the surface, we as contemporary women are independent, free, and mobile, but at our cores we still long for love, friendship, happiness, tranquillity and to be heard."
STORY AND ACTING
I wanted the two main actresses to play both the period and contemporary characters. They had to create very different personalities both in their emotions, and in their gestures.
This was quite challenging for them but it paid off in the resonance the characters had between the present and the past. This emphasized the link between the emotional struggles women have to go through even if their lives now are completely different from those lived by the women in the 1800s.
After the producers and I read the novel 'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan', we all felt that the story of women's struggle in society and families still exist in contemporary societies today. It's a topic that is not limited to an era or any particular location; it's a story that can be universally understood. The two characters also represent two very distinctive personalities which modern women today embody. For the story to be more relatable to modern audience, the writer and I developed a contemporary part of the film. In the contemporary story, Nina and Sophia represent and reflect Lily and Snow Flower from the original story.
'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan' has two main story lines: period and contemporary. In the period story, the colours are very rich and saturated ‐ every scene has a screen set up that is almost stage‐play like. The picture and look of the period story stayed very simple and straight forward. In the contemporary story, to reflect Shanghai as a fast‐changing and developing city, I divided this part of the story into two smaller parts again, the 90s and now. In the 90s, to reflect Nina and Sophia's youth and energy, scenes have fast pace, and the whole section was shot with a handheld camera to ensure flow and speed. In the present part, 2010, scenes are longer, the colour is mainly blue and generally poignant to reflect the hardship of Nina's journey to find out the truth about Sophia's accident.
The production design made the period sets very theatrical with the colours enriched and enhanced. The lighting was influenced by Rembrandt paintings with a naturally warm luminosity. This visual look gave the period story a different emphasis to the contemporary story which took advantage of the cool hip ultra-modern look of Shanghai, where everything has a more colourful and glassy look in contrast.
The period story of the film was shot in Heng Dian movie studios. It's a small town near Shanghai with a huge back‐lot containing historical buildings from different periods. Specific buildings were chosen for the movie that were appropriate for our story set in the 1800s in the Hunan province.
For the modern portion of the story, the production moved to Shanghai, and featured some of the most iconic contemporary buildings in the city as backdrops. Nina's old home in the 90s was in an original old Shanghai Shi Ku Men building. The room was so tiny that as the director I actually had to be placed in someone else's apartment next door to monitor the shooting. The production also filmed many sequences at popular Shanghai streets, dinner clubs, and the beautiful Peninsula Hotel.
COSTUMES AND PROPS
The costumes for SNOWFLOWER & THE SECRET FAN were designed by Man Lim Chung. He collected antique silk, antique silver jewel parts and fabric/silk from markets all over China and Hong Kong. Specialists from neighbouring Suzhou and Hangzhou were hired to do the fine embroidery needed to give each period costume a unique and iconic quality. The head piece for Li Bingbing's wedding scene was a genuine antique head piece that had been procured from a local collector.
All the foot binding props and procedure in the film were true to historical records. The production hired a "foot biding consultant" to perform the ritual in the film, and to protect the feet of the young actresses. The foot binder in the film, the foremost expert on the procedure in China, was an old man dressed up as a woman to perform the scene. The two child actresses wore miniature high heels with their heels cut off to mimic bound feet sized shoes.
NU SHU ("WOMAN'S LANGUAGE")
All Nu Shu materials and stories used in the film were 100% true to historical record. The production hired a Nu Shu consultant for authenticity - a father and son team who actually rediscovered the lost art of Nu Shu (written often on decorative fans) and promoted the research to its current status. The woman who wrote all the Nu Shu calligraphy in the movie is actually China's Nu Shu Ambassador.
All the Nu Shu singers in the movie were decedents of the women who were taught Nu Shu in real life. They appeared as themselves in the movie and sang all the songs live.
ABOUT WAYNE WANG - Director
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Wayne Wang moved to Los Altos, California in 1967. For two years he lived on a radical Quaker ranch, doing chores in exchange for rent, and attended 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 TV 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 hand‐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." This and the next film he made, DIM SUM: A LITTLE BIT OF HEART (1985), a family comedy about a Chinese American mother and daughter relationship, established his reputation.
Wang is often identified with films about the Chinese and the Chinese Diaspora, including the film adaptation of THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993). However, he has also made such quirky independent features as SMOKE (1995) and BLUE IN THE FACE (1995), both starring Harvey Keitel and set in Brooklyn, and even a Hollywood‐style romantic comedy MAID IN MANHATTAN (2002) 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, as well as 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.
The art of Adaptation