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Film Analysis: ‘Over The Moon’ is a Masterclass in Asian Representation for the Universal Audience6 min read

16 December 2020 5 min read


Film Analysis: ‘Over The Moon’ is a Masterclass in Asian Representation for the Universal Audience6 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Over The Moon is an American-Chinese film about a girl named Fei Fei and her journey to find the moon goddess Chang’e. The film boasts a large star-studded cast of Asians including Sandra Oh, Phillipa Soo and Ken Jeong. With that being said, expectations were high and personally, I think it definitely didn’t disappoint.

While the film may not be perfect in its portrayal, it is heartening to see the things that it does get right. Despite being an American co-production, the film stays authentically Chinese, from the mooncake making sequences to the lavish tables filled with Chinese dishes. It possesses a unique “Asian-ness” that I have never seen in any other film by an American studio.

Somehow the film is able to balance both the Asian and Western perspective to form its own brand of representation. It is unlike children animations that have come before like Kung-fu Panda, which is set in the East and exploits Eastern tropes but is distinctly Western-marketed as so. Or Mulan (1998) which shows an understanding of its source material, capturing its nuances but still comes off as more Western than Eastern.

Over the Moon stands a step above these, being Chinese to its core but also a beautiful amalgamation of both cultures where neither is lost nor exploited. The film pulls off a balancing act so marvellous that anyone can watch the film and be touched by its message. Over the Moon is able to give us the feeling of home down to its minute details, showing that it was truly a well-researched and well-thought-out film.

The film is also set in an unnamed and ambiguous place. Unlike Big Hero 6, it isn’t set in an amalgamation of the East and West. Instead, the film is set in a place that is prototypically Chinese — a version of China that is easily identifiable to Western audiences but it doesn’t stop there. The representation extends beyond that to things you can mainly find in Asia, from groups of Chinese people dancing in the park to Fei Fei’s ridiculously accurate school uniforms. Visually, the film shows us that it does indeed understand Chinese culture.

On top of that, the dialogue also smashes it out of the park. From aunties and grandparents commenting on your weight or competitively bickering with each other, the film shows that it understands Asian family dynamics.

While criticism may come from the fact that the film seems to follow your stereotypical tropes found in children animations, such as the talking animal and the annoying sidekick, these also have an Asian twist. The talking animal is a magical moon pangolin (an animal found in Asia) and the sidekick is a ping-pong prodigy (a sport that Chinese people are obsessed with).

The film also follows Disney’s dead mother trope. However, Over The Moon is justified in doing so. Instead of being just a convenience for the plot, the film uses the mother’s death to explore themes of grief, love and loss. It comes off as deeply genuine as Fei Fei struggles with moving on. Her trauma isn’t brushed aside but directly addressed. 

This is as the writer, Audrey Wells, was working on the screenplay while battling cancer. Passing in 2018, she never saw the release of the film herself. Instead, Wells wrote Over The Moon with her daughter and husband in mind to help them process the loss and grieve. In doing so, the film broaches the subject with sensitivity and a profoundness that doesn’t seek to speak down to its audience.

The cultural awareness also extends beyond just the visuals and dialogue. The symbolism used in the film also heightens it. As Fei Fei struggles with accepting loss and change, she is determined to hold on to her family the way it was, not wanting her father to move on and love again. 

As she laments to herself, she encounters a crane. Cranes in Chinese culture, symbolise longevity and lasting love. As cranes mate for life, the crane acts as a symbol to reaffirm Fei Fei’s belief and strengthens her resolve to seek out Chang’e. This moment happens visually, with no verbal explanation, not dumbing itself down to be understood.

Therein lies the strength of the film: It trusts its audience to understand its intent. Unlike a film which would try to explain the metaphor to show how well-versed they are in the culture of the source material, Over The Moon lets these moments pass quietly. If you understand it, you understand it. It doesn’t force cultural appreciation down your throat in order to validate itself as aware or ‘woke’. Its portrayal is not performative but genuine. It allows for moments to be lost in translation so as to not pander to Western audiences.

However, my gripes with the film come when Fei Fei successfully travels to the moon and the city of Lunaria. Lunaria is inspired by the cover of Pink Floyd album “The Dark Side of The Moon” and paintings of Joan Miro. While this makes it visually bright and stunning, it subtracts from the elevated representation given to us in the first part of the film. Add to that K-pop-like musical numbers and the cross-cultural confusion is enough to make me feel a little bit iffy about it.

That does not inherently make it a bad film, just that it feels like a missed opportunity to create representation. I would have loved it if the film would have been more like Coco in that it adopted more Asian iconography instead, just to tie in more with the beginning of the film. But honestly, that is just what I would have wanted, the moon doesn’t belong to any culture per se and is fair game.

Overall, the film is still a leap in representation. It is something special and shows the industry’s ability to adapt Eastern myths in a universal way, while not being exploitative or reductive. Over The Moon is a blueprint for Eastern storytelling and is truly one of a kind film and will remain a film that is close to my heart near and dear to me

Film Trailer:

Catch Over The Moon now streaming on Netflix:

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An avid reader and movie watcher struggling to balance a love for life with inherent existential nihilism.
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