“Turning Red” Movie Review: Domee Shi’s Semi-Autobiographical Debut Is Bold, Funny And Sweet
Here, those themes got even more personal: Son is now a daughter: 13-year-old protagonist Meilin “Mei Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), the child of Chinese immigrants, who grew up in 2002 in Toronto and who has just discovered the wonders of the opposite sex. Shi, who was born in China in 1989, moved to Canada at a young age and grew up, like the character Mei Mei, in the shadow of the city’s iconic CN Tower. Among other things, the film is a semi-autobiographical love letter to the director’s adopted city: home to the largest immigrant community in Canada, and here populated by a tapestry of characters who don’t just come from Asia, but also from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and India. subcontinent. In short, the hyper-specificity of the film‘s temporal, geographic, and cultural setting—lively rendered, as we’d expect from a Pixar film—makes “Turning Red” a version of Shi’s own story.
Mei Mei wakes up one day to find she has turned into a giant red panda. In “Bao” the son was depicted, less literally, as an anthropomorphic bao, or Chinese steamed bun, but only in his mother’s dream. Here, the transformation is quite literal. When Mei Mei reverts to her human form—her temporary, werewolf-like shapeshifting, triggered by strong emotion and can be undone by calming down—her once-black hair remains a glowing fiery red.
The metaphorical implications are fascinating and, given that this is a Disney movie, rather daring. When Mei Mei confesses to her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) – hesitantly and without details – that a change has taken place in her body, mom’s first reaction is understandable. “Has the red peony bloomed?” Ming asks her daughter, euphemistically referring to the onset of puberty, and offering an armful of feminine hygiene products. “You are now a beautiful, strong flower, who must protect your delicate petals and clean them regularly,” she adds, in one of the film’s most hilarious examples of maternal misunderstanding and circumlocution.
But despite the biological implications suggested by its title, “Turning Red” is much more than a menstrual PSA. It turns out that all of the Lee women share the plight of Mei Mei: a magical legacy from an ancestor who possessed the ability to become a red panda to protect her people. Today, all the women in Mei Mei’s family – her aunts and her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) – have managed to contain the beast, so to speak, via an ancient ritual. On an overly simplistic level, “Turning Red” evokes and gives new meaning to the once popular sexist moniker for menstruation: the curse. But Shi has a lot more to say.
In a broad sense, “Turning Red” is, like “Bao,” about growing up, moving away, and becoming whoever you choose to become. For Mei Mei, this person is not the same confined woman as her mother, or as her mother wishes her to be. (Ming is Shi’s answer to the perfectionist Tiger Mother: a Panda Mom, so to speak.) On one level, Mei-Mei simply becomes a teenager: “I like boys,” she declares with challenge at one point, “I like music, I like touring. I’m 13 – deal with it. The film’s main plot concerns Mei-Mei and her friends’ efforts to attend a concert by 4*Town, a fictional boy band whose PG love songs were written by Finneas O’Connell and his sister Billie Eilish, and include the fun lyrics:
I have never met anyone like you.
I had friends and I had buddies, it’s true.
But they don’t turn my stomach the way you do it.
Zooming in even further, “Turning Red” delivers a bigger and, in some ways, more universal message: it’s okay to not always be in control, to let your weird flag fly. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a red panda is just a red panda. And sometimes it’s a metaphor for that inner spark of creativity, the flame of originality that needs to be cherished, not extinguished. With “Turning Red”, Shi demonstrates that she has it, in spades.
PG. Available March 11 on Disney Plus. Contains mature thematic elements, suggestive material and coarse language. 100 minutes.