Turning Red shows the power of movies to be both culturally specific and universally relatable.
Pixar’s new coming-of-age comedy follows a 13-year-old Asian-Canadian whiz kid named Mei (Rosalie Chiang) who’s horrified when she transforms into a giant red panda, the result of her Chinese ancestors' mystic connection with the animal that’s affected her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) and all the other females in her family.
Director and co-writer Domee Shi based the roots of the story (Teen Wolf-inspired transformation aside) on her own Toronto upbringing in the 2000s.
“I was that 13-year-old dorky, nerdy passionate Chinese Canadian girl growing up in the early aughts in Toronto,” Shi tells us during a recent virtual press day (watch above) where she was joined by producer Lindsey Collins.
“And there was just this specific moment in my life where I went from being my mom's good little girl and having control over my life to being a giant hormonal, hairy raging beast. I wanted to go back in time and kind of unpack what was happening during that time [as] puberty was happening, and kind of analyzing it from the perspective of Mei… from the kid, but also from the perspective of my mom, who at the time I thought was just this oppressive, unfair villain, but now being an adult myself, I want to understand her on a deep level.”
Turning Red is not only Pixar’s first film to center around a Chinese-Canadian family and not only its first film solely directed by a woman, it’s also the animation studio's first film to represent a clear metaphor for puberty.
And who hasn’t — or who won’t — endure the horrors of puberty in their lifetime?
Represented within and alongside the film’s broad, sharp comedy stylings and pop star-obsessed teens, however, are more culturally specific aspects Shi and her voice cast were excited to explore.
“We wanted to tell a more nuanced story between this parent and this child that was like specific to the immigrant kid, the Asian kid experience,” Shi says. “So Mei herself, she loves her mom. You can tell in the beginning that she cares about her mom so much and her family, and she genuinely loves taking care of [the Chinese temple they tend to next to their house] and honoring them and pleasing them. But at the same time she is growing up, she is developing these new feelings, new friendships. She's getting obsessed with boy bands and Western culture, but she still wants to be good for her parents and her family.
"That specific struggle, I think, is different than a lot of Western kind of coming-of-age stories. I think for a lot of Asian kids like myself, the answer is not really black and white. It's not like choose this or that, like honor your parents or yourself. You want to do both, but there's a tragedy in that you can't, or that there will always be this push and pull for the rest of your life.”
Chiang loved the film’s representation of Chinese cuisine — no surprise given Shi previously won an Oscar for her mouth-watering animated short Bao — and details like its riff on the fact that people of Chinese descent consider four an unlucky number.
Oh (Sideways, Killing Eve) describes one sequence in the film that makes her particularly emotional.
“For me, one of the most moving moments is when Mei, as her red panda self, is wanting to leave the temple and her mom, her dad, her grandma and all her aunties are trying to bring her back in,” she says. “That one image, it still makes me emotional because I feel like every generation needs to go through this. And specifically, let's say from an Asian perspective, it's a beautiful image of the people who love you the most and who you love, who want the best for you, who want you to stay the same while you, yourself, as a young person need to break off to be who you are. And within also that creating new culture. That’s one of my favorite images.”
Turning Red is currently streaming on Disney+.
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimme Rhee
Watch the trailer: