Initially, one of the board artists for the upcoming animated Netflix film “Over the Moon” sketched the main character Fei Fei’s parents kissing.
But Peilin Chou, the film’s producer, wasn’t going to let that slide for a movie so heavily drawn from Chinese culture, where affection between parents is not expressed in such a way, especially in front of the children.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I've never seen my parents kiss my entire life!,’” Chou, who herself is an immigrant from Taiwan, told NBC Asian America.
Needless to say, the gesture was axed from the film.
Depicting emotions through an Asian lens was critical in ensuring authentic Asian representation in the film, Chou said. The animation, steeped in Chinese lore, took great lengths to ensure depictions of love didn’t default to the Western expressions people typically expect to see in Hollywood movies.
“So much of the movie centers around the love of this family, and also, kind of how Fei Fei becomes closed off after loss and needs to figure out how to open her heart again and connect with that love,” Chou said. “So it was super important that what it was she was trying to connect with felt really real.”
“Over the Moon,” which premieres on Oct. 23, boasts an all-Asian cast that includes some big names including Sandra Oh, Ken Jeong, Margaret Cho and John Cho. It follows Fei Fei on her quest to meet the mythical Moon Goddess, Chang’e. The goddess, whose story remains the legend behind the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, lives on the moon, yearning to reunite with her other half, the archer Hou Yi.
While more obvious forms of Chinese culture appear in the film, like the legend of the Moon Goddess itself and family feasts around a lazy Susan, Chou said the team incorporated more subtle nods to the heritage. For example, while Fei Fei has many emotional scenes with her father in which the two share bonding moments, neither explicitly say “I love you,” Chou said. And the grandmother shows her warmth and affection in ways that Asian American viewers will likely pick up on.
“The grandmother is concerned with if she [Fei Fei] is eating enough and there's a bit of criticism there,” Chou said with a laugh. “That kind of that familial type of love.”
These moments, Chou said, are “not really something you can research” and require those of Asian descent and their lived experiences on board to create something believable. It’s also why she believes that it was necessary to cast voice actors of Asian descent as well, even though their faces wouldn’t appear before us.
“Even though you're not seeing these actors on screen, these actors are embodying the soul of these characters and who they are,” Chou said. “Philippa Soo, who is half Chinese and plays Chang’e, she talks a lot about, for example, when she embodies the role, how much it was influenced by growing up knowing the myth. … Culturally, growing up in that kind of family just really informed what she brought to the role.
Chou added, “It's not the same if you're a white person from Cleveland, Ohio, and you are supposed to play a Chinese moon goddess. I don't know how you connect with that in anywhere near the same way,”
Cathy Ang, who voices Fei Fei, said that playing a character who shares her heritage was a similarly profound experience for her.
“I actually haven't played a Chinese character until ‘Over the Moon,’ and I didn't realize how different it would be. I just get to be myself. Completely myself. It's a huge privilege to share my culture through art,” she said. “And I'm working with my Asian American and Pacific Islander idols — artists who I look up to for their creativity as well as the work they do for our community. The entire movie-making process has been a celebration of Asian culture, and it fills me with a pride that every AAPI person should feel.”
For both Chou and Ang, the movie signified a sort of reclamation over an age-old fable that the two had grown up with. Chou jokes that growing up, she would’ve “given my left arm to be a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl,” informed by all the particularly strong blonde chick representations on screen. But making a movie with such powerful Asian characteristics can create a narrative of pride for young Asian Americans today.
“It certainly helped me to appreciate the traditions my parents brought with them to America — now I am more grateful for our moments around a lazy Susan, and all the opportunities that my parents gave me to grasp onto our roots,” Ang said.
But Ang said that the film has also made her realize that identity is somewhat of an amorphous concept, unable to be rigidly defined. As she put it, “there's always more for us to explore about Asian and Asian American identities.”