I went into the living room and carefully removed the disc. Penelope followed to help me put it in the player. The title screen appeared and a moment later the opening scene was unfolding. Penelope leaned against my leg, clutching for support, her eyes focused on the television.
On screen a shaman explained how the sun and moon were like men and women.
“Sun is a boy, rising like smoke. Moon is like a girl, falling like water. Does sun reflect moon?”
“No!” the children reply.
“Does moon reflect sun?”
“Yes!” comes the response.
“And what does that tell us?” the shaman asks.
”Sun has all the power. Because boys are better than girls.”
A little girl stood silent in the crowded room, surrounded by her peers. She did not smile. She did not speak.
Penelope continued to stare and hold on to my leg. I looked down at her, wondering what she was thinking. Was it her mother tongue that intrigued her? Was it the little girl that held her attention?
Jenn appeared in the doorway. I turned in place and stared at her with wide eyes.
The scene shifted to Yunnan province’s cultivated hill sides. Green flowing waves cut across the landscape, a path for the story’s heroine to pass through. Jenn and I watched and waited for Penelope to detach and find something to play with, to run into her room. Instead she remained still, focused on the screen.
The little girl sat on her mother’s lap and asked “Would you love me more if I was a boy?”
As the question hung in the air I wondered how Penelope would react to that statement when older. Before I had time to ponder the question, Mei Mei’s mother was giving birth on-screen. I didn’t need to see another frame to know Mei Mei was about to be motherless.
“Time to go in the kitchen, sweetie.” I told Penelope.
According to the “Cinderella Moon” website director Richard Bowen was inspired to make this movie after learning the Cinderella story originated in China over 1200 years ago. For parents of children from China, the director’s last name may sound familiar. Richard’s wife is Jenny Bowen, founder of Half the Sky, an organization dedicated to helping orphans in China. Making this movie must have been a labor of love for Mr. Bowen.
Many of the story’s elements will be recognizable to, well, most everyone. After the loss of her mother and father, Mei Mei is cared for by her father’s first wife. Her half-sister, a bumbling girl without skills, looks, or prospects for marriage, provides no solace or companionship. With three mouths to feed the family’s matriarch intends to sell Mei Mei’s dowry, a set of beautiful hand crafted tea pots. When this fails she hatches a plot to marry Mei Mei to a local well-to-do villager’s son. All the while Mei Mei mourns and waits for the full moon to bury her father, lest his spirit wander the earth without a guide.
Meanwhile the king detects an imbalance in the moon’s orbit. He’s certain calamity will ensue if sun and moon do not hold to their proper celestial paths. While the king is engrossed in the fate of the world his mother enslaves a group of young women, hoping her son will find at least one of them appealing enough to take his eyes off the heavenly bodies. The dowager doesn’t have time for prognostication; she wants a grandson!
As the sun and moon draw closer to each other, so do Mei Mei and the king. Desperate to change her fate, Mei Mei decides to disguise herself and attend the village dance, wearing a magical pair of embroidered shoes passed down by her mother. Desperate to change the worlds fate, the king leaves his island and heads to the village in search of an angel he is convinced can save the world.
“Cinderella Moon” surprised me by requiring no tissues. I tried to figure out why. It has gender inequality, family tragedy, and a cruel guardian, ingredients sure to tug on heartstrings.Yet there was never a moment in the movie when I felt a lump in my throat. Days later it occurred to me as I was looking at a picture of the lead actress. Throughout the movie she remains stoic. Mei Mei’s emotions are rarely evident. Maybe they were lost with the passing of her mother, or hidden away for protection from her uncaring step-mother. Mei Mei never weeps bitterly or sobs uncontrollably. With so much heartache how could this be?
You might think I didn’t like the film or wouldn’t recommend it. Not so. I do recommend it. After realizing my preconceived ideas about the movie were ill placed I was able to see it afresh.
What I was ignoring was something made clear on the movie’s website: “Cinderella Moon” is a family film.
Young viewers would be bawling and asking their parents “Why is her mommy so mean?” and “Is Mei Mei ever going to stop crying?” if it were the movie I expected it to be.
“Cinderella Moon” will be a great introduction to art house/indie films for Penelope . The movie expects the viewer to be attentive and patient. With iPads, smart phones, and limited attention spans, director Richard Bowen requires viewers to slow down for an hour and a half to let this classic tale unfold with grace, beauty, and simplicity.
The movie was shot in Mandarin and, in my opinion, should be viewed that way. The English dub track is distracting and out of place. The image on the Blu-ray was vivid and sharp, well worth the asking price. Currently “Cinderella Moon” is available here through Half the Sky. It’s unclear if the movie will receive any widespread distribution. It would be a shame for this gem to be seen by so few.
I hope Penelope will have the same level of interest watching “Cinderella Moon” when she’s older. Its messages of equality among the sexes and a person deciding who they are rather than being told who they are will be relevant when she is five, ten, or whenever she can read subtitles while watching a movie.