August 14, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Liu Jiangjiang
Mandarin with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2019, in Wuhan, China, the comedy/drama film “Lighting Up the Stars” features an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A bachelor ex-convict, who has taken over his family’s mortuary/funeral business, has his life turned upside down when he ends up taking care of an orphaned girl.
Culture Audience: “Lighting Up the Stars” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies that skillfully blend drama and comedy in telling stories about families and unexpected changes in life.
“Lighting Up the Stars” is a charming comedy/drama about the complications of love, getting second chances in life, and coping with loss. This gem of a movie presents a memorable story about an ex-con who becomes a father figure to an orphaned girl. It’s the type of subject matter that could have easily been mishandled by being too melodramatic or by being a silly slapstick comedy. However, “Lighting Up the Stars” depicts life’s ups and downs with a realistic balance, while the movie’s talented cast members bring emotional authenticity that’s highly commendable.
Written and directed by Liu Jiangjiang, “Lighting Up the Stars” takes place in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, at the beginning of the COVID-19 virus infections, when the city had not yet been placed under the lockdown that occurred in January 2020. Two very different strangers will soon find themselves in each other’s lives and will never be the same again. These two people are the movie’s central characters.
The movie’s first central character is an ex-convict named Mo Sanmei (played by Zhu Yilong), nicknamed San, a never-married bachelor in his 30s. San has recently gotten out of prison for assaulting the lover of his ex-girlfriend, who cheated on San with this lover. San’s widowed father (played by Luo Jingmin), who goes by the name Old Mo in the movie, thinks San is a disappointment to the family, which also includes San’s younger sister Mo Dajie (played by Zheng Weili). However, Old Mo is about to retire from owning and operating a mortuary/funeral business, and he wants San to take over this small business, which is literally a funeral home, since it’s where San lives after he gets out of prison.
The movie’s second central character is a precocious 4-year-old girl named Wu Xiaowen (played by Yang Enyou), who has been raised by her grandmother. Xiaowen doesn’t know if her biological parents are dead or alive. All she knows is that her parents are not in her life, and her grandmother is the only parental figure whom Xiaowen has had so far. In the beginning of the movie, Xiaowen tragically finds her grandmother deceased in the grandmother’s bed.
San and Xiaowen cross paths at the funeral for Xiaowen’s grandmother because the Mo family morturary/funeral business has been hired for the grandmother’s cremation and funeral. Xiaowen’s uncle (played by Chen Chuang) and his wife have taken temporary custody of Xiaowen. However, these spouses don’t really want permanent custody because they’ve been having marital problems, and they’re not prepared to take care of any children.
Shortly after the funeral, Xiaowen’s uncle and aunt stop by the Mo family’s funeral home and quickly tell San that they need him to look after Xiaowen for a few days. San says he’s not operating an orphanage (something he will say multiple times in the movie), but Xiaowen’s aunt and uncle don’t give him any time to turn down their request. The spouses leave Xiawoen, hand over some cash to San, and then exit in a hurry.
During the first day and night that San has to take care of Xiaowen, she meets his two employees, who are also San’s closest friends: cheerful and kind Wang Jianren (played by Wang Ge) and his practical-minded girlfriend Yin Baixue (played by Liu Lu), whose romantic relationship becomes more serious as the story continues. Jianren also lives at the funeral home. While the four of them are spending time together, San finds out that Xiaowen loves to play Mahjong, has a talent for drawing art, and that Xiaowen had a very close and loving relationship with her protective grandmother.
But the first night for Xiaowen at this funeral home gets awkward. In the cramped bedroom, there’s a bunk bed where San is sleeping on the bottom, while Xiaowen is sleeping on the top. He’s woken up by something dripping on his face. It’s Xiaowen urinating in her bed. San is immediately irritated because he thinks that this kid isn’t potty-trained. It turns out that Xiaowen is potty-trained, but she explains that she was afraid to use the toilet in the nearby bathroom because she thinks a statue placed in front of the bathroom is scary-looking.
Xiaowen’s bodily functions are used in another comedic scene, but these bodily function scenes are not exploitative. The scenes are a little crude, but the purpose is to poke fun at the adult characters who are not very prepared to care of a very young child. The only viewers who might be offended by these bodily function scenes are people who don’t want movies to ever acknowledge that human bodily functions exist for urination and defecation.
Xiaowen has not been given a proper explanation about her grandmother’s death. She thinks San is holding her grandmother captive in a funeral casket. And so, for a good deal of the movie, Xiaowen demands that San give her grandmother back to her. San has no patience or experience in taking care of children, so he gets annoyed and frustrated with Xiaowen, whom he sometimes calls a “little devil” who was sent to torture him.
Eventually, San abruptly tells Xiaowen the truth about her grandmother’s death after he gets tired of her accusing him of kidnapping the grandmother. (This conversation is already shown in one of the trailers for “Lighting Up the Stars.”) San and Xiaowen are outside, and he shows her the chimney of the Mo family crematorium. He then angrily tells Xiaowen that her grandmother was burned up, her body turned into “ash and smoke, drifted up into the sky, and disappeared.”
Xiaowen is understandably devastated by the news, especially since San told her in such a harsh way. But it’s a turning point in the relationship, because Xiaowen doesn’t want to live with her quarelling aunt and uncle. Xiaowen is given the choice to live with her aunt and uncle, or to live with San. She chooses to stay with San, whom she eventually begins to think of as a father figure. None of this is spoiler information, because these plot developments are already revealed in the trailers for “Lighting Up the Stars.”
The movie gets a tad predictable in showing how San eventually grows emotionally attached to Xiaowen. However, what’s less predictable and more realistic about “Lighting Up the Stars” is that the presence of an innocent child like Xiaowen doesn’t automatically erase San’s personal demons. He’s a very troubled person with a violent temper and a lot of emotional baggage.
For example, near the beginning of the movie, one of the first things that San does when he gets out of prison is make an unannounced and uninvited visit to his ex-girlfriend Hai Fei (played by Li Chun’ai), who was in the love triangle that resulted in San assaulting her lover, whose name is Laoliu. San is still very angry and bitter over the breakup with Fei, and he gets aggressive with her (he yells at her and pushes her) when he goes to her home.
Fei is still in a relationship with the Laoliu, who is in the home and sees San assaulting Fei. Laoliu and San then get into a physical fight, which results in Laoliu beating up San, who then leaves the home in humiliated defeat. Fei and Laoliu decide not to have San arrested. They just want him out of their lives. San still struggles with his heartbreak over losing Fei, and this grief comes out when he verbally lashes out at the people who are closest to him.
San also has a love/hate relationship with his father Old Mo. When San was a child, he had an older brother who died tragically. (The details of this death are revealed in the movie.) San feels as if Old Mo still loves the deceased brother more than Old Mo loves San. The movie hints that San’s inferiority complex partially explains why San became a troublemaker later in life, because he felt that he was going to be a disappointment to his family anyway.
San also has mixed feelings about taking over the family’s mortuary/funeral business. In the beginning of the movie, San plans to immediately sell the business. But because San is kind of a screw-up, something happens to the deed paperwork, so San reluctantly stays on to operate the business. Xiaowen ends up affecting San and the business in ways that he does not expect.
One of the best things about “Lighting Up the Stars” is that there isn’t a single scene that looks like a useless “throwaway” scene that was put in the movie just to fill up time. San and Xiaowen go on an emotional journey that is realistically fraught with discomfort, grief and irritation. But there’s also a tenderness to how their family relationship develops, as they both begin to understand that they are emotionally wounded people going through different kinds of emotional pain.
Zhu (as San) and Yang (as Xiaowen) absolutely shine in these roles, which are the heart and soul of “Lighting Up the Stars.” Zhu gives an admirable performance of a hardened ex-con who evolves into someone who finds out that he’s capable of having the type of parental love that he didn’t think he was capable of having. There’s also a subplot with San and his father that is very well-written and acted in a poignant way.
Yang, who is very talented at facial expressions, is an utter delight to watch, since she is the very definition of a “scene stealer.” Only people with the hardest of hearts won’t be charmed by her performance. Xiaowen can sometimes be bratty, but she’s also very smart, loving, and emotionally intelligent. And it’s not in an “only in a movie” way, but in a way where the Xiaowen character is convincing as someone with a fully formed personality.
“Lighting Up the Stars” has several twists and turns (some more unexpected than others) that will hold viewers’ interest for the entire story. The movie also has character details that are noticeable, but the movie doesn’t hit viewers over the head to notice these details. For example, when San and his father sit down, they both have a habit of bending one of their legs to prop up on the seat where they’re sitting. It’s a quirk that Xiaowen notices too, and it’s shown in a touching way at the end of the movie.
Overall, “Lighting Up the Stars” is a rare movie that is a well-made, live-action family film that can appeal to people from a wide variety of age groups and cultures—without being corny, preachy or unrealistic. The tearjerking scenes and the comedic scenes look natural, not manipulative. And the stellar performances by the cast members (especially Zhu and Yang) give “Lighting Up the Stars” an impressive resonance that will stay with viewers long after the movie ends.
China Lion Film Distribution released “Lighting Up the Stars” in select U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022. The movie was released in China on June 24, 2022.