Born into families of different classes during the early 19th century, Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bing Bing) are subjected to the agony of foot binding and also assigned to each other as laotong (sworn sisters for life). As they are married and move away (all the while writing secret letters to each other on paper fans), Wayne Wang’s film cuts back and forth between their stories and those of two other girls, Sophia (also played by Jun) and Nina (Li Bing Bing again), best friends separated by class, circumstances and betrayals occurring in the present day.
While the film, adapted from Lisa See’s novel, recalls the thematic concerns of Wang’s Joy Luck Club, its unwieldy transitions, grim melodrama and tedious caricatures (see Sophia’s aunt, played by Vivian Wu) detract from what may have been emotional, moral and political detail. As families jockey for social and financial standings in both eras, the girls are buffeted, prostituted and beaten down. If their friendships are not always smooth, they are repeatedly tragic and selfless: One girl believes she’s a burden and so withdraws purposefully, another feels betrayed or briefly prideful, and so makes a terrible decision.
The film labors, as well, under its literary conceit, that Sophia has written the manuscript version of the earlier tale, and Nina is reading it, their bond reinforced by this mutual imagining.