Wednesday, February 29, 2012

NYICFF ’12: Cinderella Moon

So many little Chinese girls could have used a fairy god-mother. Young Mei Mei only has an ancient matchmaker to counter-balance her rotten step- mother. Though not magical, the old woman certainly has ambitious plans for her. Based on the Chinese legend of Ye Xian that predates Perrault’s Cinderella by about 800 years, Richard Bowen’s Chinese-produced English-dubbed Cinderella Moon has obvious relevance for China today, but should still charm little girls of any cultural background when it screens at the 2012 New York International Film Festival.

Little Mei Mei is a gifted potter, like her mother, her father’s younger second wife. When Mei Mei’s mother dies in child birth and her spiritually ailing father soon follows, she finds herself the de facto servant of her cruel step-mother and idiot step-sister. However, she takes comfort from her mother’s legacy: a pair of bejeweled gold-fish slippers and the promise of a special destiny.

Mei Mei hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps, finding a love match by dancing in the village festival. Unfortunately, the moon is stuck in the sky, putting life on hold for the kingdom. It also puts pressure on the young defiant king, who is responsible for keeping the heavens in equilibrium.

Moon is surprisingly rich in archetypes, mixing Fisher King mythology with universal Cinderella motifs. In fact, the celestial themes raise the stakes of the story considerably. However, the core of the film involves Mei Mei’s struggle to find her place in world that essentially treats girls like chattel. Indeed, the parallels with One-Child China, where girls are all too frequently the victim of abandonment and sex-selection abortions, are difficult to overlook. Young Mei Mei is sweet tempered and vulnerable, but to her credit, she refuses to accept the chauvinism around her.

Thanks to the two highly expressive Mei Mei’s, Xiao Min at age fifteen and Yang Zhicheng at five, viewers will feel a strong emotional connection to the young protagonist. Under Bowen’s sensitive direction, they convey a sense of wonder perfectly suited to a fairy tale. Bowen and cinematographer Wang Yu also capture some breathtaking vistas shot on location in the Southwest Yunnan province.

Moon is a finely crafted period production, featuring some striking costumes designed by Laurence Xu. However, the disembodied-sounding dubbed voices will grate on the ears of cineastes. Still, it might be a necessary trade-off for the film to reach audiences of a certain age.

Of course, it is more important for Moon to reach Chinese audiences. Admirably, it is a mission Bowen takes seriously, having cofounded with his wife Jenny the Half the Sky Foundation, which provides support to Chinese orphans (mostly but not entirely girls like Mei Mei). Deeper and richer than most fairy tale films, Moon is highly recommended (for boys too) at this year’s NYICFF. It screens this Saturday (3/3) at Cantor, Saturday the 17th at the Asia Society, and Sunday the 25th at the IFC Center.