Fascinating to learn that Chinese culture takes female bonding so seriously. This screen version of Lisa See’s popular novel highlights the notion of the laotong, an officially registered relationship between two women that’s independent of marriage and may even be couched in a secret feminine language known as nushu. This seems a promising basis for drama, yet Wayne Wang’s film proves dismayingly ill focused, folding a decorative yet somewhat uninspired saga of nineteenth-century China (much rebellion, plague and foot binding) into a contemporary story of emotions thwarted by career choices and romantic entanglements. The same actresses (Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun, adequate enough) play similar parts in each time period, yet it’s difficult to know what’s so special about the ties between them when the movie’s (deliberately?) vague on any sexual component therein. The result’s intriguing yet rather bland, notwithstanding another gorgeous score by Rachel Portman which could be an awards contender if enough voters got to hear it.