In Hollywood's golden age, films about women's lives were often derisively dismissed as "women's pictures." These days the term is "chick flick." My new film, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, will almost certainly get stuck with that label -- it's about the lifelong friendships between two women in 19th century China, and two women in contemporary Shanghai. But I also hope my film shows just how limiting that label can be.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is based on Lisa See's remarkable novel about the relationship in 19th century China between two "laotongs" -- female friends who swore a lifelong commitment to each other. Lisa's novel shows just how difficult women's lives were in that period. Their marriages were like business arrangements. Because of the emotional void in their marriages, they formed strong bonds with women that lasted a lifetime. And they grew up having their feet bound. If a girl had perfectly shaped feet, which were called the Golden Lotus, she had a chance to marry well. This ritual was carried out at the tender age of six when the bones in their feet could be easily broken.
Lisa See's book holds great reverence for female friendship. The laotong phenomenon was not a widespread practice in China, but was developed by a minority tribe in Hunan Province. But according to this tradition, women would be matched with a laotong (when they were girls) if they were destined to be together from a very young age. As laotongs they pledged to be loyal friends forever. The laotong bond was formalized in a contract. It was a bond that could not be broken.
Laotongs also devised their own language. No one else could understand it. So they could send messages to each other sometimes on a fan and sending it back and forth. That way their husbands would not be able to read what they were saying. One fan could carry a lifetime of messages.
When I first considered directing this project, I couldn't imagine doing it just as a historical drama. Ultimately what appealed to me was the possibility of incorporating into this ancient story a modern female friendship set against today's China. While once Chinese women sacrificed any notion of independence or personal dreams, today they are confronted with many more choices in a society moving at such a fast pace no one quite knows where anything is heading.
So in my film, I've added a storyline involving two close friends in contemporary Shanghai whose relationship is pulled apart by work and love, and by a society moving at a frenetic pace. The bond between these contemporary women is not formalized, but it remains a lifelong commitment. There's a lesson there for both men and women in an age of global connections and social networking, when people collect hundreds of online friends with whom they never even interact in the real world. I often think life would be much richer if we valued our friendships the way that laotong did.
The film premiered at the Shanghai Film Festival last month and has had a strong run at the Chinese box office, and laotong has become a trending topic on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, as people across China have seized on the idea of the laotong relationship and tried to renew their commitments with close friends.
As a filmmaker straddling different cultures, trying to make films that appeal to international audiences, I would never define my films as men's films or women's films, or Chinese films or American films, just as I would never make films just for a Western or Eastern audience. I hope that in the story of these two pairs of laotongs, I've presented a story that is at once cosmopolitan and universal, and that can resonate equally for both men and women.