A strikingly lensed fairy tale as magical as its picturesque design, “Little Sister” is the rare pic practically guaranteed to enchant tots and parents alike. Novice helmer Richard Bowen’s previous career as d.p. on largely middling pics from the late ’80s through the ’90s can now be safely archived, judging by this richly told girl-power fantasy based on a classical Chinese “Cinderella” incarnation. If only Bowen had ditched the gratingly jejune English narration, all would be near-perfect. Still, what’s onscreen is more than good enough for strong commercial prospects in both this multi-lingo format and a planned all-English dubbed version.
Most Western auds are unlikely to grasp initially that the pic’s helmer is American, as Sinophile Bowen and his Chinese colleagues have taken enormous care to ensure a level of authenticity (shooting was largely done in Yunnan province) while allowing for plenty of fantasy elements to capture the imagination in exquisite ways. Co-producer Barbie Tung is a longtime key collaborator on Jackie Chan pics, and d.p. Wang Yu builds on the talent he displayed in such features as “Suzhou River” and “The Go Master.”
The story is taken from the early Cinderella tale “Ye Xian,” written in 768 A.D.; viewers’ acquaintance with key elements, combined with unfamiliar twists, means “Little Sister” weds the comfort of the recognizable with the delights of the unexpected. In a mythical kingdom, Mei Mei is born to a doting mother (Du Fengping), the second wife of a village notable (Li Wenhua) whose first wife (Wang Caiping) already has a daughter. All signs said Mei Mei would be a boy, and Dad is gravely disappointed. Tragedy strikes several years later when Mei Mei’s mom dies in childbirth along with her newborn son.
When she’s in her mid-teens, Mei Mei (Xiao Min) loses her father and becomes her stepmother’s drudge, playing second fiddle to her dull-witted half-sister (Hu Yinzi). The saddened young woman longs to fulfill her mother’s promise that she’ll participate in the local dance, wearing a splendid pair of jewel-embroidered slippers under a full moon.
While Mei Mei’s stepmother keeps thwarting her, the world itself is thrown off-kilter when the moon freezes in the sky and the earth’s young king (Zhang Jie, with teen-idol good looks) is enjoined by his mother, the Dowager (Chi Peng), to take a concubine and balance the celestial bodies. One day, the king, using a telescope at his island home, spies Mei Mei floating on air with her magical slippers. Convinced he’s found his angel, the king searches for his vision, but she loses one slipper along the way and, well, the rest is easy to deduce.
Aside from its sheer entertainment value, the pic pushes a strong feminist element that’s especially timely given recent reports on female infanticide in China. The moral, that a proper balance allows us to become fulfilled, is easily embraceable by all cultures, furthering the likelihood that this child-friendly film is poised to conquer multiple territories. Whether kids will find the narration as infantilizing as many adults will is difficult to gauge; it’s not just the words used but the irritating tone of wonderment in which they’re delivered, despite narrator Brenda Song’s honeyed voice.
Casting is exemplary, boasting a felicitous mix of pros and amateurs who have fun with their roles while refraining from hamming. Besides Xiao’s lovely perf, other thesps worth singling out are Wang Caiping and near-nonagenarian novice Zhang Genrui, terrifically warm as a wise matchmaker.
Visuals are a treat, featuring stunning onsite shooting and some first-rate CGI, especially for the king’s island home, expertly interlaced with actual locales. Laurence Xu’s standout costumes cannot be passed over, mixing traditional tribal elements with a sense of fantasy.