Lisa See‘s bestselling novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, explores the complex nuances of female friendship between childhood friends Snow Flower and Lily in 19th century China. They are laotongs, “old sames,” bound together in sisterhood as tight as their own painfully bound feet through their devotional love for one another and the suffering they endure together from the woes and demands of being married women in their time. Nushu, a secret language known only to women, further cements their bond as they write to each other on the folds of fans and exchange them furtively.
In the film adaptation of the novel, out in theaters now, Snow Flower and Lily face their personal challenges with quiet strength and sacrifice and treat each other with tenderness rarely seen in any kind of relationship today, a delicate emotional balance that Chinese actress Li Bing Bing and Korean actress Gianna Jun achieved with astonishing dignity.
Cast for their contrasting appearances, Li and Jun take on the role of Lily and Snow Flower in addition to Nina and Sofia, respectively, the latter a pair of modern day women in Shanghai, which director Wayne Wang felt was a necessary addition to the story line.
“I wanted to bounce off the modern day Shanghai off the historical China, to see those two worlds bounce emotions off each other,” said Wang at a recent press junket. “Even though women are freer and more independent now, the emotional relationship between women is still very important.”
Co-producers Wendi Murdoch and Florence Sloan supported this creative decision as it would not only make it accessible to all cultures but to today’s contemporary audience. “We thought it would be more interesting and challenging to put a parallel story, a modern story with the old. To show that nothing has really changed, but everything has changed.”
While Snow Flower and Lily suffer through the nearly unbearable pains of foot-binding, womanhood, and even betrayal, Nina and Sofia face their own demons. Though their feet are not bound, they are bound by other circumstances: their families, their economic circumstances, and the kind of opportunities that come before them. And despite the different external fetters, both modern day women are bound by the same internal struggle of hopelessness, betrayal, and love that the historical women feel toward themselves and each other. In either cases, the pairs must overcome the changes that disturb their relationship.
Coincidentally, Li and Jun had their own differences to face. Not sharing a common language, they had to rely on other means to communicate.
“We don’t speak the same language. That is a gap between us. But that gap was a lucky gap for us,” Li said. “If you cannot listen to anyone, you will pay more attention to the person, to the real person.”
“We both wanted to say something, but we didn’t know how to say it,” Li continued. “So we tried our best to know each other, to read from the eyes and to feel one another from the heart with our body language. Everything we did was subtle and special. It’s a special kind of feeling, and I cherish this experience between us.”
The relationship Li and Jun had discovered and forged was present not only in speaking scenes, but also in scenes with silence. According to Wang, “The scene after Gianna, the Snow Flower character, gets beaten up by her husband is a simple scene in the script. It just says, ‘Lily is cleaning up the wound.’ But the two of them made it a very emotional in a very special way. In a way beyond sexuality, beyond whatever.”
Though we may not face oppression as women may have centuries ago, though we may luxuriate in the privilege and freedom modern times presents us with that our ancestors did not have, though we may be generations and cultures apart, the bond of friendship is undeniably important. We need people in our strongest and weakest moments, in the happiest and the most disheartened. As See states, “It’s a particular kind of intimacy and trust that also comes with the possibility of betrayal.”
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is out in theaters now.