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by Brianne Fagan
Laotong contracts, secret Nu Shu writing, and the binding of feet are all interwoven with modern Hong Kong life in the film version of Lisa See’s book of the same title. See’s protagonists of 1829 Hunan, Snowflower and Lily, are re-visited through their generational descendants, Sophia Liao and Nina Wei, almost two hundred years later.
Snowflower and Lily were two girls who were matched up as laotong, lifelong sisters, which relationship roughly translates into “old sames.” As many as eight different criteria had to be present for this match up, including the birth dates and foot binding dates of the little girls; however, their economic and social class was markedly different. Their laotong contract was made by a matchmaker chosen by the family, similar to the procedure for marriage. The children met after their fate was decided, and then began the lifelong, heart to heart relationship which lasted throughout their lives.
Snowflower’s and Lily’s descendants come from complicated modern backgrounds, of the kind produced by progress, migration, and technology. Sophia is the daughter of a businessman who invests in the stock market. Their relationship is very close; the mother is deceased. Sophia has studied abroad in Korea, a circumstance probably written into the script to explain Korean actress Gianna Jun’s accent when speaking Mandarin. She does not get along at all well with her stepmother, and finds solace in the friendship of Nina Wei, who comes from a more traditional family who have meals together, and are also heavily focused on education and success. At the opening of the film, Nina has attained this status, and is on the point of traveling to New York with her boyfriend to advance the company they both work for. Sophia, however, has followed a very different path. Unbeknownst to Nina, she has returned to Hong Kong from Australia with an almost-finished novel, and rented an obscure apartment near her deceased father’s bath house. While riding her bicycle, she is struck by a taxi and taken to a hospital in Hong Kong. Nina, whose number was the last one Sophia had dialed before her accident, is notified by hospital personnel. She rushes to see Sophia, who is in a coma, and from there begins the unfolding of both stories, the old and the new.
Under the direction of Wayne Wang, both the history of Snowflower and Lily, and the earlier life of Sophia and Nina are presented in flashbacks, more or less painted on the same canvas. The two Hunan girls get their feet bound at an early age. The film spares us the achingly graphic description of foot binding which Lisa See depicts in her book, but we see enough to flinch at the sight of the tiny girls’ feet being bent and broken into the “golden lilies”, which were to assure them proper husbands in the future. Sophia and Nina undergo no such torment, but they do investigate and learn about the laotong relationship and its contractual obligations, as well as dipping into the Nu Shu writing of secret communication among women. Modern tutors initiate the girls into the meaning of the traditions and their origins, and they sign a laotong contract in Nu Shu. Both of them take it intensely seriously.
Sitting at Sophia’s bedside in the hospital, Nina discovers the manuscript which Sophia refers to elsewhere in the film as “the story of Snowflower and Lily, but it’s really about us.” Nineteenth century Hunan, the culture and customs surrounding Snowflower and Lily, are skillfully interwoven with the nuts and bolts of daily life in modern Hong Kong. Both Gianna.Jun and Li Bingbing play double roles admirably, and as the film progresses, the two stories in their time periods become gradually more and more meshed, until at the end, Snowflower and Lily are sitting at a table on the balcony of a modern high rise building, embroidering. Somehow there is little sense of historical clash in this picture. The stories as a whole are blended more or less into a seamless garment. The real protagonist is the laotong relationship, and its particularly dramatic impact on the lives of those who embrace it. In both Hunan and Hong Kong, the laotong relationship bound the lives of its participants together as long as they lived.
It is an advantage to know the story of Snowflower and the Secret Fan before viewing the film, but not entirely necessary. The artistic cinematography by Richard Wong provides a clear cut contrast of two centuries, embellished by the period costumes, hairstyles and sets. Shots of the mountains of Hunan segue easily into the skyline of today’s Hong Kong, without disturbing the engagement of the viewer. Rachel Portman’s musical score subtly enhances each scene, embracing a number of haunting themes, and varying from ancient Chinese melodies to blaring modern rock music, highlighting the contrasting backgrounds..
Snowflower and the Secret Fan might lead one to ponder the evocative topic of the wisdom of Chinese culture in providing women, who before modern times were the most oppressed members of society, with a chance at fulfillment, relational happiness, and communication un-invaded by men. Marriages in ancient times were designed and constructed principally for the advancement and satisfaction of men. Somehow, Chinese women realized that, beyond husband and children, a woman really required closeness, sharing, and appreciation by another human being in order to find fulfillment. The sister relationship far surpassed the marital one in enriching a woman’s life, and happiness did not depend on romantic love in order to flourish and grow. Considering the divorce rate in western cultures, in which lifetime decisions are too often based solely on romantic feelings, that concept might be worth reflection.
The laotong relationship is intimately connected with Nu Shu writing, a cultural combination which was the key to liberation for Chinese women of different economic and social classes. Without the monitoring of their husbands, women with scholarly interests could express themselves freely and privately. They could do this through other creative arts, painting the message on fans, or embroidering the letters into fabrics.
Originating in the town of Jiangyong in Hunan Province, Nu Shu rapidly spread among China’s physically and mentally hobbled women, providing a metaphorical path for them to tread with their deformed feet. Illustrative of woman-strength, Nu Shu writing appears light and delicate, but the tales, the truths, and the historical records contained therein are anything but. That is why using Nu Shu to sign a laotong contract was so completely appropriate. In binding sisters, the Nu Shu contract was a means of symbolically unbinding feet.
While the film details the development and progress of the two pairs of laotong sisters, it also underscores the meaning and ultimate purpose of such relationships – that of preserving history and life values through loyalty and love.