Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan"

When my students from China reacted with horror that I did not know Li Bingbing, one of China's famous movie stars, I decided to do a bit of research on her best movies. One lucky day, I found this movie among the racks of the DVD shop.

According to Wikipedia, the movie is set in the 19th century. The movie begins with a young executive in Shanghai named Nina who had just received the good news that she has been promoted and will be relocated to the branch office in Amsterdam. She is quite excited about it and will fly off soon with her male colleague when she gets a phone call about someone who's headed for the emergency room at the hospital. It's her best friend, Sophia whom she has not seen in years...

As Nina mulls silently over her decision at the hospital i.e. the age-old question of "should she stay by her best friend's side or should she leave in pursuit of her dream job?", we are brought back to olden days China...

The camera shows a couple of ladies, one of them is a matchmaker, talking to two 4-5 year old little girls. One girl, with fine features, well-coiffed hair, beautiful hair ornaments and dressed in silk is obviously from a rich background. No, they are not Nina and Sophia :) The other girl with a slightly smudgy face and dressed in plain cotton clothes is obviously from a more modest background.

The matchmaker tells them that they are now laotong (老同), literally "old sames" (read more about this practice of lifelong friendship between women in Hunan, south-central China on Wikipedia).

From that day forth, the two girls practise writing a secret language called "nǚ shū" 女书 ("women's writing"), which they will use to communicate with each other. Cool, right?


If you read the Wikipedia entry on this secret language among Chinese women, you'd be sad to know that the last person from the Jiangyong country in Hunan province, proficient in the writing system died in 2004.

I think it's great that the Ford Foundation provided a grant to build a Nüshu museum - for all we know, works in Nüshu could well be an interesting collection of Chinese women's literature. Li Bingbing herself was touched by the culture of "lao tong" and "nǚ shū" and she mentions the importance of preserving it in a media interview: Back to the movie, we watch the two girls grow up and share many happy girlish moments together. The girl from the wealthier background gets married first and the two girls share some light banter during the wedding preparation but they also realize that the test of their sworn friendship begins NOW because they will leave each other and live new lives. The bride-to-be gives her best friend a secret fan on which she writes a message in the secret language. I think it was a poem on friendship. 

The two young girls go through different paths in life and while it may seem to the other that her life is worse (or better?), you'll soon see who is the happier one. At the same time, we are brought back to Nina's and Sophia's life in Shanghai when they were teenagers. Again, both of them come from different backgrounds but it's more complex than the simplistic "rich" vs "poor" debate, which is what I like best about this movie.

For me, the movies explores the tenuous theme of women's friendships - can they really stand the test of time? And boyfriends or husbands? Are they really "good" friends to each other i.e. do they really care for the other's best interest especially when the struggles of daily life, envy and loneliness creep in?

You'll have to watch it to decide for yourself. After watching the movie, I found out that the movie is actually based on a novel written by Lisa See and get this, she is an American-Chinese. I wonder if the movie stayed true to the book???

All I know is that Lisa See was wise enough to let a Chinese director produce the movie with an all-Chinese cast because this movie is as good as the movies by my favourite Chinese director, Zhang Yimou. Nice! One more book to add to my TBR list.

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