MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is in Washington, D.C. this week. And thousands of Buddhist devotees from all over the U.S. have come to join him in a spiritual ceremony to promote world peace. We'll speak with a Buddhist nun who helped plan the event in just a few minutes.

But, first, if you are a movie buff or have an interest in literature about the world and most especially the world of women, then you probably remember the 1993 film "The Joy Luck Club," which was based on the best-selling novel by Amy Tan. That film, as the novel, wove together an epic story of mothers and daughters and their struggles to live and love each other across generations.

Now the director of "The Joy Luck Club" is back with a new film that also takes a deep and loving look into the hidden lives of women and girls set against the stage of world events. The film is called "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." It's based on the bestselling novel by Lisa See. And it opens tomorrow in selected theaters nationwide.

Joining us to talk about the film is director Wayne Wang. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

WAYNE WANG: Well, I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: And I'm still drying my eyes after seeing the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WANG: Which is very powerful and emotional. I might need a minute.

MARTIN: The story from the book and much of the film - half the film - is set in 19th century China where two little girls, Snow Flower and Lily are matched to become laotong. Can you explain what that is?

WANG: In those days if you were born on the same year, same month and same date, you're supposed to be destined to be together. And in this case, often time, a matchmaker will match up these two girls and have them sign a contract to become laotongs, or sisters for their entire life.

MARTIN: I'm going to play a short clip from the film that highlights this concept and I should mention that there's a modern addition in your film to the original story by Lisa See, which carries the story forward to two girls who are friends in present-day Shanghai. Those girls are Nina and Sophia. And in this scene, Sophia's aunt is telling the girls about their ancestors and their very special relationship. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) And her name was Snow Flower and she had a laotong named Lily.

(as character) Laotong?

(as character) Sworn sisters for life.

(as character) Like us.

(as character) Sister.

(as character) Sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Girls, you have a lot to learn about laotong commitment.

See, marriages used to be made for men's reasons, to form business alliances, to manage households, to produce sons and they were obligatory. And laotong commitment was for women's reasons, by choice.

MARTIN: One of the points that the film makes is that these girls find a deep love with each other that they really need, in a way. It's kind of a comfort against the harshness of the rest of their lives. And one of those elements of harshness in which they comfort each other is this practice of foot binding. And talk a little bit about the practice of foot binding and what role it played.

WANG: It lasted in China, you know, for over 1,000 years. You know, young girls who are at the age of 6 or 7 are taken and usually a foot binding expert would come and basically bind the foot so that it becomes a very tight three-inch almost triangular form. And when they walk on that sort of bound foot, the bones break. And that's how they form into this shape.

MARTIN: I have a short clip that I wanted to play and this is part of the film that's in Chinese. Most of the film is in Chinese. But I think that even if you don't understand the specific words, you'll get the emotion just from hearing it. So if you don't mind, I'd like to just play that short clip. And I'm going to cover my ears 'cause I'm not sure I can handle hearing it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Mandarin)

MARTIN: That's one of the mothers ordering her daughter to walk when her feet are bound. And you can hear kind of the pain - how painful this must've been. And one of the points that you make is that this could change your life. That by having these perfect little feet - or perceived as perfect little feet, that it could change someone's fortunes because this was considered so desirable. And I can't help but wonder if you have any thoughts about the four inch heels that some of us wear, some of us modern women wear today in order to be considered attractive. Do you have any sly thoughts about that?

WANG: Well, yeah, actually it's very similar because your feet is packed into this very tight shoe and you have four inch or five inch or six inch heels. It shows that you have the social status. You know, if you have bound feet you don't have to walk around and you're not supposed to go out in the fields to work. It's the same thing perhaps with the high heels today too. I mean a lot of the women who can afford to wear them are probably being driven around or take taxis.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with director Wayne Wang about his new film "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." The film opens tomorrow in selected theaters nationwide. It's based, of course, on the bestseller by Lisa See. And you add in the film a modern element to the original story by Lisa See that it has a storyline about the descendents of Snow Flower and Lily. Those modern girls are Nina and Sophia and they live in present day Shanghai and they're trying to maintain they're friendship as they deal with their demands of their careers and family.

Why did you want to add this element?

WANG: Well, because I think even though women are probably freer, more independent and don't have bound feet anymore and yet, at the same time, the issues of friendship, the issues of dealing with a marriage and the men in your life, plus on top of that there are more, you know, job-related stresses and urban stresses, it's very similar in terms of what women still have to go through today.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that you point out that women still have to go through is this need to make their families proud and how hard that can be. One of the points that I think was very poignant for me in the film is how the mother of one of the girls is binding her feet. You get the sense that she feels she has to do this in order to secure her daughter's future. And you get the sense that it is painful to her as well.

And there's a similar scene where the girls are going in the modern day Shanghai, where they're undergoing the test pressure, one of those kinds of big standardized tests that have become the norm in many countries. And I don't want to give away the plot, but there's some business around the test...

WANG: Right.

MARTIN: ...that bind the two girls and it has consequences. And I'll just play a short clip from that where they are - the girls are trying to help each other. I'll just play it that way. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BINGBING LI: (as Nina/Lily) I did what I did because I wanted you to be happy, because I wanted us to be together. And look what happened? We are both being punished. I don't expect my parents to understand what I did but I'm going to make them proud of me again. I miss you. I love you.

MARTIN: These girls are very open with their love for each other in the earlier generation as well as in the present day story. And I wonder if you want to sort of talk about that. I wonder if as a man, do you have that? I mean do you have men that you can I love you to?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WANG: Well, I guess it's harder for men to kind of have this kind of relationship. In the early 1900s in China one of the things that drove these women to be closer to each other was the fact that in their marriages they really weren't getting the emotional support from their husbands, so to speak. The marriage is basically a business arrangement almost. They get married. They're supposed to have, you know, provide a son and then they're left to spend time with the other women in the household.

MARTIN: In fact, you point out in the film, this was something that was news to me. I'd heard about this but I didn't know about the details of this. But in the 19th century - and this is an element in the 19th century part of the story - Snow Flower and Lily maintained their friendship through a secret language. It was a woman's language called nu shu.

WANG: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And they communicated with messages that were written on a fan. Can you talk about that?

WANG: Yeah. I mean this is the reason for this is that they developed a secret language so that men could not understand what they were writing to each other. And it applies to a lot of younger people too. I mean we were in China promoting the film and we talked to a lot of young people who said we have our own nu shu because we text each other and we have our own language and we're very like the two girls in the movie. So I think it applies in so many different ways to our lives now.

MARTIN: Wayne Wang is the director of the new film "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." It opens tomorrow in selected theaters nationwide. To learn more about the film, just go to npr.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Wayne Wang joined us from NPR member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you so much for joining us.

WANG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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