Sun, Moon and Star (Parts One and Two)
[Xing xing yue liang tai yang]
Directed by Yi Wen
Cathay Studios, Hong Kong, 1961, b&w, 221 minutes with intermission
Chinese Modern: A Tribute to Cathay Studios, a seven film retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, will end on Tuesday, October 16th, 2007, with two separate screenings of this two-part epic about the three loves of Xu Jianbai (Chang Yang), a hopeless romantic. His attitude might best be described by paraphrasing an early Crosby, Stills and Nash song: "If you can't be with the one you love, fall in love with the one you're with."
The story takes place during the Japanese aggression against China in the 1930s and 40s, and in the years after World War II ended. We meet his women in an order opposite that of the title.
His first love is A-Lan (Lucilla You Min), a neighbor in his village. She's an orphan who lives with an aunt and uncle who - surprise! - exploit her. They intend an arranged marriage for her to someone else so as to improve their own lot. A-Lan is sweet, but her health is poor. She reminds Jianbai of the Moon.
When he goes away to school, Jianbai ends up falling in love with his cousin Qiuming (Grace Chang) after she nurses him back to health from a serious illness. Both their parents have hoped and planned for them to marry. Qiuming makes him think of the Moon.
Jianbai's third love is Yanan (Julie Yeh Feng), a fiery student activist and patriot whom he meets on a train when he goes away to college. His desire to win her affections lead him to first become an activist himself, then later to join the Chinese army. To him, she represents the Sun.
The hook in this melodrama is that at one time or another each of the women give up Jianbai, thinking that he should be with one of the others. Some do this more than once. They each truly love him, but think that their selfless acts in giving him up will lead to his greater happiness.
Frankly, it's much ado about very little to this contemporary Western viewer. Jianbai is a near total wuss with no backbone. Eventually I found myself screaming, "Grow some balls, already!" (Fortunately I was alone in my apartment watching DVD screeners, not in a theater with other people.)
The film was an extremely expensive production. It cost over $200,000, roughly equal to the budgets of five average Hong Kong films at the time. A critical and commercial hit, it nonetheless falls way short of Hollywood films of "comparable" scale. (Think Gone With the Wind, Spartacus, Ben Hur.) Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pathetic combat scenes where the Chinese army battles the totally unseen Japanese.
I think Sun, Moon and Star will appeal mainly to cinephiles with an interest in the history of Chinese films in general, Hong Kong films in particular, or of the Cathay Studios specifically. Therefore it gets a qualified recommendation of 2.5 out of 4 ACF stars. If you're someone with any of the interests I've mentioned, by all means check it out. If not, at least you're forewarned to approach it with limited expectations.
Sun, Moon and Star (Parts One and Two) will screen at Lincoln Center twice on October 16th: at 12:00 noon and again at 6:45 PM. For info and tickets, click here. In between, at 4:30 PM, there will be a screening of June Bride, which also stars Grace Chang. For the FSLC website on that film, click here.