Friends come and friends go,
But a true friend sticks by uo like family.
Proverbs 18:24 (The Message)
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Director Wayne Wang’s latest venture, like his best known film The Joyluck Club, deals with Chinese women, but it is set in China, not the U.S. It chronicles the friendship, or better, sisterhood, of two sets of women. One pair lives in present day Shanghai and the other in 19th century Hunan province in central China. The 2005 novel by Lisa See is the story of a lifetime female friendship in 19th century China, but the filmmakers decided to encase this story within that of a contemporary friendship. Thus the screenplay by Angela Workman, Ron Bass and Michael K. Ray’s helps us better uinderstand the changes taking place in Chinese society.
The parallel stories introduce us to the concept of “laotong,” a covenant-like arrangement that young women (or girls) from different families enter into. In the 19th century story neither will have any say about their future, such as whom they marry, but they will have at least this friendship. There is even has a secret language (nufu, I think it was called) in which the two write short messages in a fan, sent back and forth between them over a period of years.
The film begins with Sophia (Korean actress Gianna Jun) leaving a nightspot on her bike and being hit by a car. Nina has not seen her for a long time but rushes right away to the hospital. During the long days with Sophia lying in a coma Nina discovers her friend’s manuscript of a novel set in the past about two little girls, Snow Flower (Jun) and Lily (Li), who in 1829 pledge themselves to each other.
Of course, Nina sees herself and her friend in the fictional story. Each of the girls had endured the painful process of footbinding, the parents believing that “perfect feet” were little feet, leading to a better bargain when the marriage broker negotiated a marriage with another family. When the girls grow up they go separate ways, but always maintain contact through the fan, even though in-laws tried to keep them apart. Then comes a circumstance in which one makes a sacrificial decision to sever the relationship for the good of the other. There is no opportunity to explain the cutting off of contact, this creating great pain in the hearts of both women.
People of faith will respond to the theme of oppression, covenant making, and sacrificial love. The church itself in the 19th century was for the most part still in the foot-binding-keep-them-at-home mentality. Just as Sonwflower and Lily faced great opposition to their small gesture of female independence in entering into laotong, so women in the church have struggled for their rightful place in the church’s leadership. The foot-binding sequence might bring to mind the fine film about Gladys Aylward, the British missionary who became Foot Inspector for her province, in the film Inn of the 6th Happiness.
This might not be director Wang’s finest film, but it is a very engaging one beautifully photographed and impeccably acted out. It provides a welcome relief from all the sweaty overblown action flicks that dominate the cinemaplexes in the summer.
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