By Max Chwa (21A01B)
It’s hard not to feel proud when an aspect of one’s culture somehow permeates the Western consciousness. Sure, it’s more than a little colonial, but perhaps everyone raised on Western media doomed to feel this way. So when Over the Moon was released on Netflix, I couldn’t help myself— I simply had to watch it.
Over the Moon stars Fei Fei, a young girl that struggles to reconcile her love for her deceased mother with her father’s desire for a new partner. In an attempt to dissuade her father from remarrying, she decides to build a rocket to the moon to prove that Chang’e exists, in the hope that Chang’e’s existence will show her father the value of eternal love, even beyond death. Unfortunately, when her stepbrother-to-be, Chin, sneaks onto the rocket, it offsets Fei Fei’s calculations, leaving them stranded on the moon, with no way of returning home unless they reunite Chang’e with her one true love.
It was a desire for representation that drew me to the film, and on that front, I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed. The star-studded, predominantly Asian cast features Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh and the vocal stylings of Hamilton’s Philippa Soo among others, making the film a celebration of Asian (though regrettably only East Asian) talent. Furthermore, although most of the movie takes place on the moon, a substantial part of the movie is dedicated to portraying Fei Fei’s life on Earth, which is filled with Chinese culture. While the prevalence of traditional architecture does have a whiff of exotification to it, the visuals of angular, tiled roofs and the radiant lanterns that hang from them add an authenticity to the portrayal of Chinese culture. Chinese cuisine is featured prominently too, with mooncakes and hairy crabs among the many delicacies eaten by Fei Fei and her family. Subtle touches are meaningful nonetheless: the characters say “qie zi” (brinjal) instead of “cheese” when taking photos, and Fei Fei calls her father “Ba Ba” instead of “Daddy” or “Papa”. Other aspects of the film ring true—the Mid-Autumn Festival around which the film is centred features a family reunion that feels charmingly sincere, a reunion that takes pains to highlight the paradoxical state of Chinese children as individuals that relatives claim have simultaneously grown much bigger but are still too skinny and in need of food. The film’s dedication towards the culture it is drawing from is obvious from the very first scene of the film, when Fei Fei’s mother explains the myth of Chang’e with the help of an animation stylistically inspired by traditional Chinese paintings, complete with a musical accompaniment replete with Chinese instrumentals.
Additionally, it’s evident that the use of Chinese culture isn’t simply decorative—it’s integrated into the narrative and employed in storytelling. In the film, when their family makes mooncakes together, Fei Fei turns down her stepmother’s attempt to add dates to the mooncakes due to her desire to follow her late mother’s recipe. This rejection is all the more resonant when one considers the significance of food in Chinese families. If food symbolises familial connection, Fei Fei’s resistance towards her stepmother’s attempts to participate in cooking parallels her own desire to prevent her stepmother from ever being part of their family.
The myth of Chang’e isn’t just central to the plot, it’s also highly interwoven with the themes of the film. Fei Fei clings to the myth of Chang’e as it was told to her by her mother and hence symbolises her, with Chang’e’s eternal wait for Houyi being akin to her mother’s longing for her husband in the afterlife. This association between Chang’e and Fei Fei’s mother is used with poignant effect at the dinner Fei Fei shares with her extended family and future stepfamily. Fei Fei’s insistence that Chang’e exists, to the disbelief and even the mockery of her family, mirrors a world where everyone seems to have embraced Fei Fei’s stepmother except for Fei Fei herself, the only person who refuses to allow her birth mother to be replaced. Perhaps this is why it hardly seems surprising when Fei Fei embraces Chang’e during their first meeting. In Fei Fei’s eyes, she has been reunited with her late mother, and her family can be whole—and happy—again.
Speaking of Chang’e, her fantastical kingdom of Lunaria is lovingly and creatively crafted, a dazzling whirl of colours that hangs suspended in the shape of a disk. While vivid and striking, it also retains a whimsical sense of humour, with technicolour blobs that have smiley face faces forming most of Lunaria’s population. Entire elements of the world are based on puns, with the literal biker chicks being the most notable example of this. While a large part of Over the Moon takes place in a fantasy world, said fantasy world remains grounded in Chinese culture, with winged guardian lions, living mooncakes and intricate flowers modelled after lotus roots.
However, after Fei Fei and Chin land in Lunaria, the story begins to go awry. Initially, the plot possesses an intelligence that it, in turn, expects from the audience. The way Fei Fei’s hair turns messy after her mother’s passing skillfully hints at the care and attention from others she lacks now that her mother is gone. Other elements of the story are set up early for eventual payoff—Chin’s claim that he can pass through walls is an obvious example of this, but other details are more subtle, such as Fei Fei’s stepmother sharing that her family is descended from Hou Yi, a seemingly insignificant detail that foreshadows what might otherwise seem like a case of deus ex machina.
That being said, the story soon begins to lose that intelligence due to the superfluous subplot. Through the course of the film, Fei Fei is meant to grow closer to her brother and embrace her new family in the process. This is mostly illustrated when she applies the things her brother has taught her to solve the problems that she faces. There’s just one catch—her brother isn’t there with her. Instead, for most of the film, he is trapped in Chang’e’s palace after a pointless rap battle cum table tennis match that effortlessly makes the audience cringe. Fei Fei does have a companion on this journey, however. He’s Gobi, a creature with a personality reminiscent of Frozen’s Olaf and, frankly, Chin. One cannot help but wonder if the plot would have flowed better if the two were simply the same person.
Additionally, the “bonding” between Fei Fei and her brother seems based in Fei Fei learning from her brother, which feels slightly absurd as learning to respect someone and learning to care for them are very different things. If the two had bonded in person through genuine interaction, the closeness they show towards the end of the film would have felt more realistic and less forced.
While the middle of the film might be a rough spot, Over the Moon still ends on a high note. The comparison drawn between Chang’e and Fei Fei’s mother shifts to one between Chang’e and Fei Fei herself. Both characters are still gripped by the troughs of grief and are either unable or unwilling to move on. While grief can feel inescapable and isolating, Over the Moon reminds us that none of us are or will ever be alone. The two characters confide in each other, taking turns to renew their faith in the future by reminding the other of the light that life can create, and the joy that lies in the distance. Like a buried diamond, it’s just waiting to be found. In the words of the film’s final song, Love Someone New:
“[I]t’s time for you to let go / And set your heartache free / For there’s life that’s waiting there for you / If you can let love through.”
Over the Moon is by no means a perfect film. However, while unpolished, it remains a heartrending and visually stunning tribute to Chinese culture and an exploration of the depths of grief. Like an underdone mooncake, Over the Moon is rough around the edges, but delicious and satisfying nonetheless.