I haven't read Lisa See's novel "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," but I feel compelled to defend it from this aggravating, radically reworked film version. It's the No-Joy, Bad-Luck Club.
In 19th-century China, astrologically compatible 7-year-olds Snow Flower and Lily are matched for life as laotong, an unbreakable bond of female friendship. In a society that demanded women's silence and subservience to husband and family, the need for a bosom friend to share one's inner, emotional life was crucial.
See's 2005 bestseller followed the BFFs through marriages and pregnancies and war; highborn Snow Flower loses all and lowly Lily grows rich, but through all life's changes they comfort each other. Whenever fate separates them, they communicate by exchanging hand fans with private messages written in nu shu, a secret women's phonetic language, on the folding leaves.
In a bid to add contemporary interest, the film imposes a parallel, modern story line, with high school besties Sophia and Lin growing to adulthood in Shanghai while facing tough decisions about love, careers and loyalty. Gianna Jun and Li Bingbing play both the ancient and modern pairs of friends. The actresses are fine, but the double roles are a pointless contrivance and despite its handsome production design, "Snow Flower" has a brain of solid popcorn.
The film is sabotaged by a discordant structure that zigzags through eras and ricochets erratically from Chinese to English. Hugh Jackman pops up out of nowhere as an Australian club owner who serenades his beloved Sophia from a nightclub stage, in Mandarin no less. This is a movie where incongruous things just happen, without preparation or explanation, amid a barrage of historical mile markers (2000s, 1820s, 1990s, six years later, one year earlier). Three screenwriters are credited; one imagines they had many fistfights.
The movie dwells on the barbarities of foot-binding but makes sure we're aware that executives in Christian Louboutin pumps get sore feet, too. Also, did you know that mothers-in-law can be awful, opium is addictive and typhoid epidemics suck? The truth shall set you free.
The film's jumble-sale approach to storytelling reaches its apex at the finale when one set of laotong women magically appears in the other's era, "Twilight Zone" style, because ... um, time travel? Alert viewers will notice that one of the film's producers is Wendi Deng, wife of disgraced News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch. Amazingly, the mountain of doo-doo piled around him has just gotten a little higher.