Somewhere in a private chamber of the San Francisco Ritz Carlton hotel, not far from his own Nob Hill home but also a world away, Wayne Wang is doing press. On behalf of Fox Searchlight, and himself, he is here to discuss his new movie Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Nimbly, he talks to Asian media outlets, then to American ones. He says more or less the same things, but with different emphasis and in different languages.
Were it not for the strong punctuation of his sudden, disarming, naughty-kid laugh, this might seem like a solemn duty for Wang, who was born in Hong Kong but came to northern California in the 1960s and eventually cornered the market on occasional movie versions of popular Chinese-themed English-language books with strong female perspectives.
Wang's 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club put him on the mainstream Hollywood map. More recently he made A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska, both derived from short stories by Oakland author Yiyun Li. And now here he is with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, from Lisa See's 2005 novel about the durability of female friendship in a very male-dominated 19th-century China.
"Earlier in my career, all my films were about Chinese Americans," Wang says. "Then I kind of went away from that. I did a lot of different things because I didn't want to be boxed in by that."
Then he lets loose with the laugh. "But I've realized that the Chinese community is changing here. And China is much more of a force now. When I read Lisa See's book, it was becoming clear to me that there's a whole world that wants to know more about China."
See's book explores a sort of official and spiritual sisterhood that emerged -- via secret correspondence in a private language -- within a culture of mercenary marriage and cruelly compulsory female foot binding. Wang's own grandmother had bound feet, but he didn't want to dwell in the past. So, with help from screenwriters including Zoetrope magazine editor Michael Ray, a frequent Wang collaborator, he made a rather radical cinematic alteration: interlacing the two main characters' story with that of their ostensible descendants, a pair of close female friends in contemporary Shanghai. (Both pairs of women are played by Gianna Jun and Li Bing Bing).
"In the ending of the book she says women have a better position in the world now, but some of the same issues still exist," Wang says. "And maybe they're even more intensified because of job demands, the pressures of urban life, new family situations. That was really interesting to me."
Even when boxed in, Wang finds ways of wiggling free. In its sly way, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan charts not just the recent historical progress of female bonding and Chinese society but also modern audience expectations, particularly with regard to Wayne Wang movies.
"We opened pretty well in China," Wang says, leaning forward mock-conspiratorially in the private hotel chamber chair. "Some people don't expect that a dramatic film would actually work in China. But people there are willing to see dramatic films and hungry for them. There are too many of these big sword-fighting, swashbuckling things."
Now he's laughing again, infectiously.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan opens on Friday, July, 15, 2011.