Sun, Moon and Star I & II

The Cathay films released on DVD thus far have generally been small, intimate affairs of the heart that focus on relationships around the family or loved ones. This film (1961) has been an exception. This was an attempt by Cathay to respond to the pressure being put on them by the Shaw Brothers who were beginning to release grand epic all-color films such as The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959). Set against the background of the Sino-Japanese conflict, this was one of Cathay’s biggest budget films, took over a year to make and was released in two parts (totaling nearly 3.5 hours of running time). Though it is a two-parter, it is very much the same film simply split in half at a crucial moment (the outbreak of war) and is best seen back to back to capture the gathering emotional impact. With its trenchant drama, tragic trajectory and star-studded charismatic cast, it is difficult not to be sucked into this film. It was also deservedly a big box office success.
Julie Yeh Feng, Grace Chang and Lucilla You Min
The film is based upon a very popular serial novel written by Xu Su in the early 1950’s and to a large degree it keeps its literary flavor. Even with its grander scale and being set in turbulent times, the film still retains its sense of intimacy and in the end it is primarily a story of unresolved passions and ill-fated romance. It reminded me in some ways of “Gone with the Wind” – both films begin during peaceful times, lives are changed abruptly because of the war and then comes the aftermath of war and no one is the same anymore - but overriding all of this are the often-changing relationships that propel the story forward and the historical events are almost used as a plot device to complicate and dramatize the situation.
The film stars three of the biggest female actresses of the time - Grace Chang, Julie Yeh Feng and Lucilla You Min - and they are all splendid and give wonderfully restrained performances that are subtle and yet still are able to reach gently into your heart and cut it out. All have very distinct personalities that they fill in beautifully with sheer personality, charm and a tenderness that is like a gut check. Even when the narrative occasionally seems to lose its focus or slow to a crawl, the actresses pull it back into orbit. The same can’t be said about the main male character played by Chang Yang. Though Chang does a fine job here of acting, his character seems so clueless and indecisive throughout that it is all you can do to stop yourself from giving him a good kick in the pants which he richly deserves.
The film begins in rather soapy melodramatic fashion as a solitary Jianbai (Chang Yang) looks towards the horizon and wistfully wonders to himself where the three women in his life now are. He refers to them as the Sun (Julie Yeh Feng), the Moon (Grace Chang) and the Star (Lucilla You Min) and admits that an ordinary man such as himself was lucky to have encountered them and to have loved them. Never were truer words ever uttered. The story that follows depicts these evolving relationships over a ten year period in small little pieces that add up to a slow building tug on your emotions and leave you at the end with a real sense of poignant loss.
Jianbai has grown up in a small village, the son of well to do parents, and he has been in love with the simple and translucent A-Lan (Lucilla You Min) as long as he can recall. A-Lan though is a poor orphan living with her miserly uncle and aunt who treat her little better than a servant and her dreams only go so far as to someday marrying Jianbai. Because of this class difference the two of them have kept their romance a secret, but things spill out into the open when a marriage to another man is arranged for A-Lan. Their sweet innocent romance is torn apart as Jianbai’s parents force him to leave for college and pressure him to meet his upscale cousin at school and consider marrying her.
He has no interest in this though as his affections are still very much back with his village sweetheart. His cousin, Qiuming (Grace Chang) though has a definite agenda to snag him and lavishes him with her sparkling smile, bad cooking and wonderful singing. When Jianbai falls badly ill, she nurses him back to health and he slowly finds himself being drawn to her radiant charm. When he receives a letter from A-Lan falsely telling him that she is going ahead with the arranged marriage (to free him from his obligations to her), he and Qiuming are engaged.
Things get more complicated though when Jianbai needs to go home and discovers that A-Lan in fact never had any intention of getting married and his feelings for her re-ignite. Qiuming unexpectedly arrives and with his heart being torn in two directions, Jianbai can’t deal with it and decides to leave town on the next train and leave both women behind him. The two women soon bond and become best friends and at Qiuming’s urgings A-Lan returns with her where she takes up nursing and begins to emerge from her shell with a wonderful sense of confidence and worth. Jianbai – never one to stay out of love for long – meets Yanan (Julie Yeh Feng) on the train and is soon swooning under her visage.
Yanan is a fierce patriot espousing resistance to the Japanese and when war breaks out between the two countries, she joins the army and is soon handling a machine gun on the front lines. Like a star struck school boy, Jianbai enlists as well so to be near her and into this mix soon comes A-Lan as a nurse caring for the wounded and Qiuming who joins a troupe of musicians who travel around entertaining the troops. As one can imagine, these four people manage to find and lose one another constantly and Jianbai’s affections blow like the wind from one woman to the next.
Perhaps this may seem somewhat contrived, but it makes for fine, involving, old fashioned melodrama that works primarily because of the huge affection engendered by the female characters. Each one of them is memorable and heroic and they become burnt into your consciousness. The film also has many classic moments – A-Lan's face shining in the moonlight immersed in total love, Quiming singing a patriotic song to the cheering troops, Yanan proudly walking in minus her lost leg – and this gives the whole affair a sweeping epic feel. From a modern feminist perspective one could easily criticize the fact that the film revolves around a somewhat shallow male and wonder why these women are so drawn to him – yet in the end it is the women who are clearly the stronger characters and it is the friendships they develop with each other that seem most important.
The three women seem to represent different stages of where Chinese women were with Yanan being the most modern and independent, A-Lan being the most traditional and Qiuming falling in between them. All three fill these roles perfectly, but at least for me it was Lucilla’s simple sad fatalism that really snuck under my skin. For her sensitive and vulnerable performance, Lucilla was named the Best Actress at the first Golden Horse award show. At times her appearance reminds me a lot of Vicky Zhao Wei – especially around the eyes – and some of the shots of her are nearly tingling in their stark beauty.
Even though this was for Cathay a huge budget – that was relative – the film still feels very earthbound - at times pedestrian - and it never takes on a visual splendor in the same way that some of the big Shaw films did. There are no huge sets, recreations or giant crowd scenes. The battle scenes are minimal and very poorly done (action choreography was a definite weakness of the studio and this was to come back and haunt them within a few years) and to save money the enemy is never even shown. In the end though, this makes sense because the film is not about the war and large-scale action scenes would only have distracted from the power of the human drama.

Also appearing in the film were a few other Cathay regulars - Dolly Soo Fung as Qiuming's and Yanan's college friend, Tien Ching as Jianbai's brother, Wang Lai as the female professor, Liu Enjia as one of the troupe performers and Wu Jiaxiang as A-Lan's uncle.

My rating for this film: 8.0