19th century China. Two women, Nina (Li Bingbing) and Sophia (Gianna Jun), embark on a formal friendship - or 'laotong' - that gives them a secret freedom from the binds of a fiercely male-dominated society. Greater strife, though, is just around the corner...
Two young female friends swear allegiance in this sentimental adaptation of the book by Lisa See. While See’s novel focused on the 19th century concept of the “laotong” — a formalised female life friendship — this adds a parallel modern story about businesswoman Nina (Li Bingbing) and her sworn friend, Sophia (Gianna Jun). The idea of a friendship that falls somewhere between Platonism and eroticism is an interesting one and the period scenes are fascinating. But by flitting between the two stories, this fails to be more than superficially moving. Not even a cameo from Hugh Jackman as a singing Lothario can save the day: fun as he is, he just feels tacked-on.
Taking a much-loved novel as its starting point, Wang's film doesn't do much more than splash colour on a story of deep-felt friendship. Not even the second best Hugh Jackman cameo of the year can save it from being little more than a period curio.
Reviewed by Anna Smith