Review by Tim Robins
Moon Man is a comedic sci-fi film based on South Korean illustrator Cho Seok‘s web comic, Moon You, currently available in an English translation from WebToon. The film tells of attempts to stop a gigantic meteorite that has broken free of its orbit around Mars and is now heading to Earth.
The Moon bears the first impact of meteor fragments, leaving a hapless astronaut, Dugu Yue, the Moon Man of the title, stranded in an evacuated moon base with only a large, red Kangaroo for companionship. A love triangle of sorts develops between Moon Man, his unrequited crush on the Moonbase Commander Ma Lanxing, now safe on Earth, and the initially hostile kangaroo, nicknamed “King Kong Roo”.
The film is brought to you from The People’s Republic of China and Moon Man was the highest grossing film in China in 2022. Distributed worldwide by Tiger Pictures Entertainment, the film grossed $460million since its release on 29th July 2022, making it the tenth highest grossing film of that year. This is no mean achievement, as the Chinese film industry is still reeling from its authoritarian“Dynamic Zero Covid”, lockdown, the Omicron variant and the censorious regime of China’s leader for life, Xi Jinping.
Moon Man also had a brief release in Showcase cinemas in the UK, and there is an expectation that the film will appear on Netflix, which has a small but growing back catalogue of films from China.
I was sceptical about how well humour from China would translate, but I needn’t have worried. Moon Man is a slick production, with mostly excellent special effects, a line of comedy that combines slapstick with ironic commentary that manages, at times, to be heartfelt and a little schmaltzy. The plot owes quite a bit to The Martian (2015) but, obviously, has a humorous edge that film lacked.
The titular ‘Moon Man’ is played by the endearing Shen Teng, a popular comedian, actor and director who graduated from the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art. Yue’s character is a self-confessed “middle-man”, having spent his life consciously avoiding being cut down as a ‘tall poppy’ by being as average as possible. He only accepts his job of moonbase maintenance man because he falls instantly in love with the base’s commander, who passes outside the interview room.
Once on the Moon, Yue is happy to live in his own little world, even if that means missing the rest of his colleagues desperately scrambling to evacuate the moon in rocket ships just before fragments of the gigantic asteroid strike. There’s an entertaining scene in which Yue, headphones on, alarms silenced with tape, listens to Frankie Valli’s “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” as, through a window, the escape rockets are launching. On board, no one notices Yue’s absence, partly because the two astronauts, who should see his empty chair, have stiff necks and can’t turn their heads.
Ma Li plays Commander Ma Lanxing, the object of Yue’s amorous yearnings, who must suffer the ignominy of watching from a bunker on Earth as Yue acts out a romantic relationship with a dummy with her picture as its head. At first, Lanxing is happy to exploit Yue for propaganda purposes, but eventually she is won over by his sincerity and bravery, particularly when another lethal asteroid fragment heads Earth’s way and only Yue can stop it. (Imagine Armageddon (1998) as a farce, which I am sure many already feel it was).
“King Kong Roo” is realised using a costume and as motion-captured CGI. The creature’s appearance manages to straddle between looking realistic and cartoonish. There’s a lot of fun to be had, as Yue tries to dispose of the famously-aggressive creature, but then strikes up a genuine co-dependent friendship with it. There’s a nod to Amblin Entertainment’s logo as Roo, silhouetted against the Earth and with Yue in tow on a make-shift sled, flies over a crevasse. Keen eyes may be able to spot when Roo is realised by a man, hopping around in a space suit, but it worked for me.
Moon Man was entertaining enough to overcome some of the qualms that I felt about enjoying the product of an authoritarian regime. You may roll your eyes at this, but China’s politics are not remote from the film’s production. Among the production companies involved in Moon Man was Alibaba, a multi-billion dollar tech giant founded by Jack Ma. The company’s Web Cloud has been accused of creating facial recognition software able to identify ethnic minorities among the Chinese population. Ma himself “disappeared” for months after criticising China’s banks and his return to public view was muted to say the least. Sightings of Ma in various locations have become something of a pastime akin to bird spotting.
That said, the film does have a satirical edge, particularly in Yue’s desire to just fit in with society for fear of reprisals. A lot of the comedy revolves around attempts to turn Yue into an inspirational figure to the extent of getting a voice-over actor in case Yue isn’t up to the job. The actor starts providing a speech for Roo when the creature is the first thing to pop up on the screen. Without wishing to see director Chiyu Zhang imprisoned for subversion, It is hard not to see these scenes as a dig at China’s desire to provide an acceptable, synthetic face to the world.
I leave it entirely up to you to navigate such stormy ethical waters.
• Moon Man Webcomic on WebToon
• Tiger Pictures Entertainment
• Hollywood Reporter – Report on China’s film industry
• New York Times: About Alibaba
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