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 [husband of Jenny Bowen of the China orphan charity Half the Sky; and you might know Bowen from the photography book Mei Mei, of children in China orphanages] 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.The reviewer obviously doesn't like the narration, but the fact that the film is narrated by Brenda Song is one of the attractions for my kids. In case you've missed her, she's the infamously dim and self-centered London Tipton in Disney's Suite Life franchise, and she's Asian-American. My kids are big fans (somewhat to my dismay! Some days I feel that if I hear another "Londonism" from one of them, I'll lose it . . . .).
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.
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Aside from its sheer entertainment value, the pic pushes a strong feminist element that's especially timely given recent reports [recent reports? what 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.
I hope Variety is right about strong commercial prospects for this film -- I'm hoping for a distribution deal that will bring it to Fort Worth SOON!