Born in 1949 in Hong Kong, Wayne Wang arrived in the United States as a teen and quickly fell in love with filmmaking and the arts.
He made his solo directorial debut with “Chan Is Missing” (1982), a crime film set in San Francisco’s Chinatown; this kind of cultural crossover was rare at the time, and in 1995 the Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry.
Since then, Wang has made a career out of bridging culture, generation and language gaps ranging from Chinese-themed films such as “The Joy Luck Club” (1993) and “Chinese Box” (1998) to Hollywood films such as “Smoke” (1995) and “Maid in Manhattan” (2002).
Based on Lisa See’s 2005 novel, his new film “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” — which opened Friday in Bay Area theaters — is set in the 1800s. But Wang added a modern-day element that more closely examines his personal themes.
In present-day Shanghai, Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun play estranged friends who are reunited when one of them falls into a coma. In flashback, they play Snow Flower and Lily, who are bound by laotong, or a lifelong, marriage-like bond between women.
In a recent conversation in San Francisco, Wang talks about one of the movie’s subjects: the horrific binding of women’s feet in 19th-century China, which men found sexy and elegant.
In the film, Wang includes a shot of a modern-day woman removing her high heels, suggesting a relationship between the two.
“So often I see women in those heels, and their feet are so tired,” Wang says.
The director credits his unique upbringing for his sensitivity toward women in his films, and being in touch with his feminine side.
He tells a funny story about appearing on a variety show in China, where the host originally mistook Wang for a woman, “because of the films I’ve made, and because of my name,” he says, laughing. “I’m named after John Wayne, but my father had to find a word that sounds like ‘Wayne’ in Chinese. It’s a very feminine word.”
In traditional Wang style, this Chinese film also features a Hollywood star: Hugh Jackman, who plays a nightclub owner and sings a song in Chinese.
“He loves to sing,” Wang says. “I didn’t realize how much of a musical Broadway background he has. He has such a great ear and he learned it really fast. It was fun for him to do.”
IF YOU GO
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Starring Gianna Jun, Li Bingbing, Vivian Wu, Wu Jiang, Russell Wong, Coco Chiang, Hugh Jackman
Directed by Wayne Wang
Written by Angela Workman, Ronald Bass, Michael K. Ray
Running time 1 hour 44 minutes