Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Moon Man

As much as I talk big about wanting to open a small-ish movie theater someday and play oddball things in it, the estimating of it seems daunting. Take Moon Man - opens late July in China, doesn't make it across the Pacific for a month or so, and so the theater is a little tentative with the opening - a couple shows a day, even though the week's big releases are bringing Spider-Man and Jaws back - and it just gets packed. I'd pick up my phone, open the AMC app, and, yikes, the show two hours away is almost sold out, right into the middle of week. So, obviously, you continue it for another week, with a few more showtimes, right?

I found a window to go last night, and the audience was me and two other people; it looks like it's that way all week. It's as if there were exactly the right amount of people in Chinatown excited to see this on the big screen - with reason; it's a surprisingly impressive-looking film for what I expected to be - to fill that number of screenings and very little more. That's always a weird experience, especially when I'm laughing at stuff the presumed Mandarin-speakers behind me aren't and vice versa.

Still, it's an interesting example of it being tricky to guess how much interest a niche film like this will garner and when the niche will be exhausted.

Du xing yue qiu (Moon Man)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2022 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

Huh. Moon Man bounces between genres about as much as one might expect this sort of high-concept story to bounce, eventually winding up neither the dark and despairing comedy of its premise nor the broad slapstick its makers (Mahua FunAge) are best known for, but a surprisingly solid riff on The Martian, once it settles down and commits to a direction. Granted, it's one that can, with a completely straight face, exposit that on the moon, a trained kangaroo can reach speeds of 30 km/h, but it's more sci-fi adventure than laugh-a-minute comedy.

It opens with Yue Dugu (Shen Teng) volunteering during a job interview that he has always worked to be middle-of-the-pack, which does not get him hired as an engineer for the United Nations Moon Shield program, although they do offer him a job in maintenance. UNMS exists because of an anticipated planet-killing asteroid; missiles will be launched to break it up and divert it, with the moon itself serving to absorb the larger pieces. After eight years, Dugu has developed the sort of obsessive crush on mission commander Ma Lanxing ("Mary" Ma Li) that ignores her probably not being aware of his existence, and he's got his headphones on writing a love letter when an alarm goes off that the fragments of "Pi" have arrived early, and will devastate the moonbase. He barely misses the evacuation, and then watches in horror as a large fragment impacts the Earth. Months later, as he is slowly going mad as possibly the last man alive, he discovers that he is not alone on the base. Unbeknownst to him, a fair amount of humanity has survived underground - and some of his old colleagues have been watching the live feeds and intend to stream them to the rest of the world.

If anybody has ever cracked the code for doing "last human" as a comedy for anything approaching a feature's length, it's not leaping to mind; the sitcom Last Man on Earth started building out a supporting cast in episode two while Red Dwarf not only didn't even last that long, but wound up reinventing itself constantly to shed those limitations. Filmmaker Zhang Chiyu and his cowriters (plus original Korean manhwa author Cho Seok-Jo) come up with an amusing variation - Yue thinks he's alone and his cringeworthy reactions to it are horrifying the woman he most wants to impress and have to be heavily misrepresented to the rest of the world - but they seemingly can't quite make it work. One can sort of see the secret livestream take dead-end, either because it's too difficult to attach to an overcoming-odds plot, because they just can't find 90 minutes of jokes, or because they worried about getting too sharply satirical, which isn't really Mahua's thing.

On the other hand, it sort of works played straight. There's been some money thrown at it, enough to make the VFX look spiffy rather than like a joke or spoof, and the poppy design convinced with the sharp blacks on the lunar surface aren't bad at all; the closing credits list a bunch of high-end projection formats and the film is very big-screen-oriented. Much as some of the opening animation seems to be simultaneously cribbing from both the Minions and Lego movies, it's a neat balance of informative and enjoyably overwhelming, and most of the visuals are the same, saying something clearly while giving the audience room to look around the screen and enjoy the details . Both the problem-solving pieces and the very-long-distance romance work surprisingly well, in part because Shen Teng's average-joe persona as Yue gives him a fair amount of latitude, while Ma Li has confidence under Xing's severity. Zhang has fun playing with how the two of them are never actually in the same place as Xing grows to respect Yue, and the pair echo each other well enough to feel compatible.

One might kind of wish it was a little zanier, since the dark route is probably out and Mahua has proved good at zany. The most memorable pieces of Moon Man are very much the ones where the filmmakers see a joke and pounce, dropping it on the audience either before they see it coming or in weirder fashion than expected. Though they've traded in sci-fi and fantasy before, their filling in the details of it is especially off-kilter this time around, often doing stuff like take a second to let the audience ponder whether someone erected a monolith on the moon or if the events of 2001 actually happened in this film's past. Those playful bits are disarming, enjoyably askew enough to get surprised laughter.

Eventually, the filmmakers overreach, right up until the inevitable Chinese-movie epilogue that makes sure you know how sincere and earnest it is and that there aren't loose ends that could sour the happy ending. But it does a lot of things better than it probably should on the way to that, and I was kind of surprised how much I liked this movie that often very much wasn't the one I bought a ticket for.

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