Over the Moon’s Design and Message
Chang’e appears every night in the sky and with her jade rabbit as they gaze down upon Earth. In Netflix’s Over the Moon, the Chinese Moon goddess Chang’e is intimidating when she is first introduced this way; at first glance, she might appear to be the antagonist from the pointed shoulders of her dress and the heavy makeup on her slanted eyes. Even as an Asian American, these features immediately typecasted Chang’e as the villain in my mind, as I had been indoctrinated by Western media to have features of Asian heritage signal evil.
Production for Over the Moon began as early as 2017, but it couldn’t be more applicable to the 2020 experience. During the COVID-19 outbreak, hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen at “an alarming rate,” according to the United Nations. Xenophobia and racism have motivated many violent assaults as people in the United States direct their fear of the coronavirus onto Asian people. The fully fleshed-out exploration of cultural elements in Over the Moon is a challenge to antiquated stereotypes of Chinese people and an opportunity to dispel myths and fears to create the mutual understanding needed for a more empathetic society. Just as how Phillipa Soo’s bright voice of Chang’e broke the negative stereotypes I carried into the film, Over the Moon shatters boundaries by clearing the fog around Chinese culture for the Western audience.
The film takes place in modern-day China, around the time of the Moon Festival. The art–and specifically the wardrobe–is incredibly authentic to what Chinese people wear day-to-day. Older men in sweater vests, older women wearing scarves and bright floral cardigans, and students wearing baggy, color-blocked, athletic school uniforms, something the main character, Fei Fei, also sports.
Fei Fei’s mom passes away at the beginning of the story and after four years, Fei Fei’s dad is planning to remarry. The story of Chang’e ascending to the Moon is used as a parallel for Fei Fei losing her mom and her dad being left on Earth like Chang’e’s husband, Houyi, was left behind. Fei Fei strongly opposes her dad remarrying and decides to go to the Moon to prove to her dad that love, even when separated, is forever because Chang’e is still on the Moon waiting for Houyi.
Modern Asian culture is infused into the traditional folktale of Chang’e, as famed Chinese couturier Guo Pei designed her wardrobe. Guo Pei is best known for her over-the-top yellow gown worn by Rihanna at the 2015 MET Gala and she has brought Chinese Haute Couture to new heights by putting authentic Chinese perspectives at the forefront of her brand. In Over the Moon, two of Chang’e’s most important looks are her structured red gown and her soft turquoise dress.
Chang’e is first presented to the audience in a flowing turquoise hanfu dress with light pink accents and delicate hairpieces. She is shown in this look as she is being separated from Houyi and this outfit appears again when she reunites with Houyi for a brief moment. This pastel-toned dress symbolizes the vulnerable and human side of Chang’e as she is seen in it only with Houyi, her true love, and only in a lush green forest representing life on Earth. Pastel clothing and a light ethereal glow about her is also the traditional way that Chang’e is portrayed in art and the version of the goddess a Chinese audience would be most familiar with. Chang’e wanted to be this human version of herself who could be with her husband, but her position as Goddess of the Moon was already solidified.
Chang’e’s red gown is worn when she first meets Fei Fei and when she reaches acceptance of her destiny on the Moon to be a symbol of strength and confidence. The embroidery on the back of the robe illustrates a woman ascending towards the Moon, representing the story of Chang’e. The stand-up collar and low neckline are commonly found in modern costume renditions of Tang dynasty Empress Wu Zetian’s attire, but the drama added to Chang’e’s red gown is more akin to Elizabethan England’s exaggerated high collars. These collars that fan out like a peacock tail behind the head and reveal the décolletage can be found in the portraits of English royalty such as Queen Elizabeth I. Adding a Chinese interpretation of a Western-style is signature to Guo Pei as she frequently takes the aesthetic of Western opulence and incorporates it into Chinese silhouettes. Guo Pei’s creations are the materialization of how the West is viewed from a Chinese perspective and their very existence is in defiance of Orientalism.
While the deep crimson and shape of Chang’e’s dress are an homage to traditional Chinese culture, they can also be misinterpreted by a Western audience for malevolence. The image of power that the long sleeves on Chang’e’s dress exude can easily be mistakened for evil as Hollywood has perpetuated the idea of the “dragon lady” in characters such as O-Ren Ishii from Kill Bill, who wore a white kimono with similarly long sleeves. Misinterpretation in media fuels the xenophobic and racist attacks on Asian Americans as people become too quick to judge others based on stereotypes seen on the screen. However, Over the Moon makes Chang’e a multi-dimensional character who even as a goddess, feels human emotions like pain, loneliness, and love. Though it is a film aimed at children, the impact of seeing people who may not be from one’s own culture not as one-dimensional archetypes, but as multi-faceted human beings is a powerful experience for everyone and especially needed as we move forward in healing society.