US (2022) Dir. Domee Shi
“Don’t make me moody, You wouldn’t like me when I’m moody!”
Puberty is a bloody nuisance for all of us, especially girls, and I apologise for being less than subtle with this introduction, but this latest offering from Pixar/Disney isn’t exactly shy about isn’t subject matter either.
Meilin is a 13 year-old Chinese-Canadian girl, academically smart, dutiful to her family, and the temple dedicated to their ancestor, Sun Yee. She and her friends, Miriam, Priya, and Abby worship boy band 4*Town, and a local store clerk Devon. One night Meilin draws fantasy picture of Devon in her notebook, which her strict mother Ming finds, and confronts Devon, publicly humiliating Meilin in the process.
That night Meilin goes to bed angry and upset, but the next morning, she wakes up to find she has turned into a giant red panda and locks herself in the bathroom, which Ming assumes means she has started menstruating. Realising the truth, Ming explains this is a family curse dating back to Sun Yee, and the only way to cure it is to trap the panda in a special jewel on the next Red Moon, which is one month away. All Meilin has to do is stay calm – except 4*Town are coming to Toronto.
I did say the themes were approached in a very direct and unambiguous manner, and perhaps we should applaud Pixar for approving writer and director Domee Shi’s vision for addressing them in a world where such things usually don’t exist. The fantasy element softens the blow a little to stop Daily Mail readers from clutching their pearls too tightly but doesn’t undermine what Shi is trying to impart in Turning Red.
Based on her own experiences as an Asian teen growing up in Canada (although I doubt she actually turned into a giant red panda when reaching puberty), the film also boasts a heavy Asian and female production crew. Progress? Maybe, but it doesn’t limit the film’s appeal to just Asians or teenage girls/women either.
Aesthetically it maybe tries a little too hard to be cross-cultural – Meilin looks more western, only her precociousness and the burden of filial piety link her to her heritage. It is true Asians do push their children harder but this has also become a stereotype in western cinema, but if this is Shi’s experience, we should defer to that.
Of course, we could also look at this as positive representation. The story is set in 2002, long before this became an issue yet of Meilin’s friends, only Miriam, is Canadian – Priya is Indian and Abby is Korean, whilst nemesis Tyler is black. Boyband 4*Town are multi-racial racial too, and the school security guard is a Hindu with a turban, suggesting maybe Canada was ahead of the curve 20 years ago.
Essentially, the story boils down to Meilin juggling two personas – the good girl living up to her mother’s lofty expectations and the fun loving “Townie” with her friends. It is not hard to see that eventually this ne’er the twain shall meet scenario is going to implode when they do crossover, making Meilin sort of rootable but also tragic in the way she is not allowed to be herself, again, an Asian trait many have endured.
Fortunately, whilst the red panda is a huge shock and life changing inconvenience for Meilin, it is also cute. Mirroring the 1985 comedy Teen Wolf, when Meilin’s friends find out, they are not scared but smitten; when the secret is exposed at school, the reaction is the same and Meilin’s popularity soars. Needing $800 to attend the 4*Town concert, they sell Panda merchandise, photo ops, and the like to raise the funds, which also gives Meilin a chance to acclimatise to her new self.
However, they made a mistake with the concert dates and discover it falls on the same night as the Red Moon ritual, for which granny and Meilin’s aunts have arrived in town for. Cue a test of loyalties for Meilin as Ming once again puts her foot down in protecting her sweet little girl against the decadence of western culture. The crucial difference here is Ming has been through the same thing herself thus is being protective rather than despotic, but this nuance isn’t discussed enough to save the relationship.
Kids vs. parents is a fight as old as time, and it is interesting to see it being played out in a film aimed at pubescent teens and older, yet is also accessible to younger audiences who may not be ready to understand the central metaphor. I’m sure some parents my hold off showing this film to their kids to save answering some awkward questions, especially breaking the news they won’t turn into a panda one day.
Didacticism is often a tricky thing to avoid when your target demographic is universal so you can expect a heavy handed climax to drive the key messages home. However, by embracing Chinese folklore there is an enchanting freshness to this resolution, offering something visually different. Fans of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema should enjoy the astral plane set in a bamboo forest, beautifully rendered with the same verdant richness of Zhang Yimou’s House Of Flying Daggers.
Shi also reveals her anime fandom in little touches – the Sailor Moon-esque starry eyes whenever a character sees something cute, whilst Meilin resembles what a 13 year-old Mei from My Neighbour Totoro would look like. Kaiju fans should get some nice vibes from the final act as the Toronto Skydome plays host to a showdown much bigger than Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock from Wrestlemania 18 at the same venue!
Considering the niche resonance of the topic, I had a lot more fun with Turning Red than I expected, possibly from being an avid Asian film watcher for my own reference points. However, Shi has made a universal issue feel more universal by exploring it in such a warm, clever, and inclusive manner.