Nina (Li Bingbing) is a Shanghai career girl who drops plans to move to New York when she learns her estranged bestie, Sophie (Gianna Jun), is in a coma. Soon Nina discovers the manuscript of a novel that Sophie had been writing, which turns their longterm friendship (cemented as teens dancing to contraband Faye Wong tapes, but fractured by diverging adult choices, like Sophie's ostentatious romance with Hugh Jackman) into the tale of the lifelong bond between two 19th-century Chinese women, Lily and Snow Flower (also played by Li and Jun). In squeezing the raw material of Lisa See's 2005 period novel through a partly contemporary frame, director Wayne Wang adds a charge of relevance to a story otherwise hinged on the dated traumas of foot binding and arranged marriages, playing up China's rapid modernization while effectively suggesting that the secret rituals of female friendship transcend generations. While the constant cross-cutting between past and present draws attention to the production's inconsistencies (in the olden days, people apparently made a lot of declarative expository statements like "Now, the typhoid epidemic is upon us"; in the modern sections, the women speak in stilted English that's sometimes indecipherable), when Wang very occasionally allows the two periods to merge, it's strangely provocative. As the parallel friendships evolve over time, both push and pull between platonic and erotic; it's to the film's credit that it never definitively suggests that love can only be one or the other.
Story-within-a-story BFFs Li (left) and Jun.
Opens at Seven Gables and Pacific Place, Fri., July 22. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes.