Luckily for us, the car stopped in time, but it was far too close for comfort. Was it a threat, a joke, or simply bad driving? I would never know. But that incident was the last time our only child was allowed on a scooter for months. Our family decided afterward that it would be unsafe for our son and me to be out without a second adult, further isolating ourselves in an already lonely time.
Along with the added physical safety measures, I have an increased and urgent desire to cultivate my child’s pride in his Chinese heritage. However, the pandemic has made it nearly impossible to build cultural connections in the ways our family did in the past. We can no longer bus to Seattle’s International District to soak up the festive atmosphere. We miss being immersed in the hustle and bustle of dim sum rushes and watching our little one eat his weight in dumplings. We can’t visit extended family out-of-state, let alone travel out of the country.
So what is a conscientious parent to do? What can we do to foster pride in our Chinese heritage during a pandemic that has been distinctly anti-Asian?
Since the pandemic began, I haven’t been able to bring myself to wear my favorite “It’s an honor just to be Asian” T-shirt quoting Sandra Oh. Though I’m proud as ever to be Asian American, I do not want to give ammunition to racists while exposed in public and I’m angry at myself for feeling afraid. So in these somber times, “Over the Moon” prompted in me a quiet rejoicing.
The story introduces the audience — then takes them beyond — the Chinese myth of the Moon Goddess, a woman named Chang’e who drinks an immortality elixir awarded to her hero husband by the gods, and floats up to the moon for all eternity. This myth inspired the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, which honors Chang’e’s sacrifice.
Skillful animation by legendary animator and director Glen Keane (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin”) breathes life into endearing characters voiced by a talented all-Asian cast. Newcomer Cathy Ang headlines as Fei-Fei, the precocious 12-year-old protagonist, with Phillipa Soo of “Hamilton” fame as Chang’e the Moon Goddess, supported by an ensemble cast of Ken Jeong, John Cho, Margaret Cho, Sandra Oh, and more. During our at-home, prescreening offered by Netflix — one of the perks of having a writer mama — my 7-year-old was enraptured from the opening scene.
Set in a picturesque canal city in China with carved stone bridges over waterways, the film offered a peek into the thrill of what it was like to revel in the festival before I emigrated. Fei-Fei’s family feasts on delectable dishes with boisterous relatives squeezed around a round table, under a full moon. I remember eating fresh mooncakes as a child and learning that everything is round to symbolize unity and coming together. I loved seeing my child’s face light up at the scenes of family celebrations, especially because we couldn’t host a crowded dinner of our own.
For me, an Asian American mental-health advocate, I find the nuanced representations of Chinese mythology and culture in “Over the Moon” reason for optimism. I was taught since childhood that suffering is a venerable requisite in life, that there is honor in embracing one’s bitter fate. In modern retelling of “Over the Moon” — in which Chang’e, along with Fei-Fei and her father, finds freedom — is revolutionary in allowing its characters to quest for happiness beyond loyalty to the deceased. “Over the Moon” is a family movie that reinforces the message that we need not swallow bitterness; instead, we can change our fate.
Most other representations of Asian culture and family demonstrate, by contrast, how dehumanizing it is to paint billions of people with the same brush. I’m curious how this film will perform worldwide. I wonder if “Over the Moon” will be too Chinese for Western audiences while simultaneously too Western in its theme and philosophy for Eastern ones. Or perhaps this push and pull is exactly why it will appeal to so many people like me who grew up caught in between cultures, who forged our own way.
Americans are facing not only a Covid-19 pandemic but an epidemic of heightened racism against Asians. The potential power of the film’s release during a time when some of our country’s top leaders model hate as a winning strategy is noteworthy. We need this film, this small antidote, to shield our children and ourselves, to challenge harmful stereotypes about Chinese people and instill cultural pride.