September 9, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Zhang Chiyu
Mandarin with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in the year 2033, and briefly in 2043, on the moon and on Earth, the sci-fi/comedy/drama film “Moon Man” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A maintenance worker, who’s part of an astronaut crew on the moon, accidentally gets left behind on the moon in an emergency departure, and he becomes a symbol of hope after Earth experiences an apocalypse.
Culture Audience: “Moon Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of sci-fi movies and movies about human survival that blend goofy comedy with poignant drama.
Although the comedy in “Moon Man” sometimes gets a little too silly and repetitive for its own good, this sci-fi flick has enough memorable characters, intriguing plot developments, and heartfelt dramatic moments to be entertaining and emotionally stirring. “Moon Man” is not the type of movie that will win major awards for technical achievements or acting. It’s a crowd-pleasing film that takes some familiar elements of “stranded survivor” stories and delivers a unique spin that people of many different generations can enjoy.
Written and directed by Zhang Chiyu, “Moon Man” is based on South Korean illustrator Cho Seok’s comic book series “Moon You.” The movie alternates between showing what happens on the moon and what happens on Earth. “Moon Man” begins in 2033, by showing an astronaut team from China that’s stationed on the moon for an exploration project called UNMS Project.
There are 300 people on this team. Their mission is to explore the moon and look into possibilities that the moon could be inhabited by human beings, in case there’s an apocalypse on Earth. A massive meteorite has been detected in the universe, and scientist believe that this meteorite is headed in Earth’s direction. The team’s temporary moon home is named UNMS Base.
One of the people on the team is Dugu Yue (played by Shen Teng), who is considered to be one of the lowest-ranking team members because he’s a maintenance worker. Dugu Yue is a “regular guy” who is often ignored by the higher-ranked members of the team. He has a secret crush on the team’s no-nonsense leader, Ma Lanxing (played by Ma Li), a female astronaut who doesn’t think much of Dugu Yue in the beginning of the story.
One day, all of the UNMS Project spaceships are summoned to return to Earth for an emergency: the detected meteorite is heading to Earth much earlier than expected. In the chaos that ensues, Dugu Yue is out driving in his moon buggy, when all the spaceships leave, and he is accidentally left behind on the now-abandoned UNMS Base. Dugu Yue feels hurt and rejected. He tries to communicate with the command station on Earth, but the communication equipment doesn’t work. (He finds out why, later in the movie.)
Dugu Yue can see Earth from where he is on the moon. His hope of being rescued gets crushed when sees that shortly after his colleagues have landed on Earth, the meteorite has hit Earth, and large portions of Earth have exploded. Dugu Yue has no idea how many people survived, but it’s obvious that Earth is now experiencing an apocalypse.
It turns out that most of Dugu Yue’s colleagues did survive. They are holed up in an astronaut compound, where they can see and hear Dugu Yue on video monitors, but he can’t see and hear them. Ma Lanxing is one of the survivors.
Dugu Yue has plenty of food and water to last for several months, but he has to find a way to survive on his own until he can go back to Earth. It’s later revealed in the movie that when he was living on Earth, Dugu Yue was a loner who had no friends, loved ones or other family members for most of his childhood into his adulthood. His lonely life explains why no one except his colleagues are the only ones who know or care that he’s stranded on the moon.
Left to his own devices, Dugu Yue initially tries to have as much fun by himself. He does some moon-crater “surfing” on a snowboard, but he takes more than a few tumbles. He tries to hack into his colleagues’ computer equipment that was left behind. And he creates a life-sized cardboard replica of a human body and places a photo of Ma Lanxing’s face on this replica.
This makeshift replica of Ma Lanxing becomes Dugu Yue’s “companion.” He eats meals with it propped up in a nearby chair, and he talks to it like as if it were really Ma Lanxing. During one of these meals, Ma Lanxing confessions to the replica that he’s had a longtime crush on Ma Lanxing. And then he takes some ketchup, puts it on Ma Lanxing’s replica face, and licks the ketchup off of her face.
Meanwhile, Ma Lanxing and her colleagues in the video monitor room are watching these private moments, unbeknownst to Dugu Yue. Most of the colleagues are amused, but Ma Lanxing is not. She’s mortified and embarrassed.
During this apocalypse, many of Earth’s survivors are experiencing despair and depression. Ma Lanxing comes up with an idea that she thinks can bring hope to Earth’s remaining people: She wants to use Dugu Yue as an example of someone who is a hero survivor on the moon.
Ma Lanxing wants to livestream Dugu Yue’s activities to the people on Earth. She also concocts the idea to have a voice actor(played by Huang Zitao) play the role of Dugu Yue, in order to fabricate things that she wants people to think Dugu Yue is saying. It’s a plan that’s so absurd, it works best in an intentional comedy film such as “Moon Man.”
Ma Lanxing reports to Sun Guangyang (played by Li Chengru), the U.N. Shield Contact chairman, who goes along with the idea, with some hesitation and concern that this hoax might backfire. Another colleague who’s on board for this plan is mild-mannered and compassionate Wei Lasi (played by Lamu Yangzi, also known as Jackie Li) and her brash and disrespectful co-worker Zhu Pite (played by Yuan Chang), who is one of the first people to laugh when Dugu Yue does something to embarrass himself.
Meanwhile, Dugu Yue finds out that he’s not alone on UNMS Base. A very special kangaroo has been left behind. This kangaroo is highly intelligent and has very human-like mannerisms. (Fortunately, “Moon Man” does not make the kangaroo an animal that can talk in a human language. We have more than enough movies about talking animals.) Predictably, Dugu Yue and this feisty kangaroo, which he calls King Kong Roo, end up clashing with each other in many comedic moments.
“Moon Man” has several scenes involving slapstick comedy between Dugu Yue and King Kong Roo. The movie’s visual effects look convincing for the space exploration parts of the movie. The visual effects for the King Kong Roo aren’t entirely convincing all the time and can be distracting.
The movie goes in some directions that are more amusing that others. The relationship between Dugu Yue and King Kong Rue takes up a lot of the “Moon Man” story, but viewers will also notice how this “odd couple” also affects the people who are watching on Earth. Ma Lanxing starts off thinking that Dugu Yue is a buffoon, but over time, she begins to respect Dugu Yue.
Shen Teng anchors “Moon Man” with a performance showing his impressive skills at physical comedy, as well as emotional gravitas. The rest of the cast members also do well in their roles. However, Shen’s versatile performance as Dugu Yue will get the biggest reactions from viewers. His lead performance is also the most memorable thing about “Moon Man.”
Doing a comedy/drama movie about an apocalypse is a tricky balance that most films cannot achieve. “Moon Man” has some cringeworthy flaws, but the movie mostly succeeds in mixing comedy/drama tones without making the story too ridiculous or too serious. It’s ultimately a movie that has as much to say about the pitfalls of elevating false idols as it does about how people can find true heroes within themselves.
Far East Films released “Moon Man” in select U.S. cinemas on August 2, 2022. The movie was released in China on July 29, 2022.