In her wonderful short film Bao, director Domee Shi captured the growing pains of parenthood through the bonds between a mother and her “dumpling” son. Shi’s highly anticipated debut feature Turning Red travels similar ground, but from the perspective of a teenager navigating all the changes that come with puberty.
At 13-years-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is by all accounts the perfect daughter. The top student in all her classes, she strolls the hallways with the confident swagger of someone who knows they will one day be accepted to all the best universities. While she has a loyal group of friends, her besties being Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), she always makes it home in time to help her overbearing mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), with the family business.
Working hard to live up to the high standards that her mother has set for her, Mei’s life slowly begins to deviate down a different path when she develops a crush on an older boy, Devon, who works at the local Daisy Mart. Considering that only the members of 4*Town, the five-member boy band that she and her friends are obsessed with, has ever been worthy of her attention, this new wave of hormones catches her off guard. While realizing one’s budding sexuality can be confusing enough, Mei soon finds her once structured life thrown for a loop when her evolving emotions trigger an old family secret. One that results in her turning into a giant red panda.
Complicating matters further is the fact that an ancient ritual, that can only be done on one specific night, is required to remove the panda from within Mei. Unfortunately, the ritual just happens to fall on the night of the 4*Town concert that Mei and her friends are determined to attend.
Like Ginger Snaps before it, Turning Red uses Mei’s physical transformation to represent the various changes young women endure during puberty. What makes Shi’s film a joy to watch is that it boldly addresses these changes head on. The film is just as comfortable making jokes about periods as it is in exploring the complicated dynamics between mothers and daughters.
It is the shifting bonds between parent and child where Shi’s film resonates the most. One can identify with the internal tug of war that Mei feels. On one hand she desperately wants to remain the “good girl” in her mother’s eyes, however, doing so means repressing her growing sense of identity. Mei’s desire to break free and forge her own journey is just as palpable as her need for familial love. Conversely, one also understands Ming’s desire as a parent to ensure her child does not make the same mistakes she did growing up.
Turning Red openly embraces the generational baggage within families that we all carry. The film reinforces that we are all flawed beings and that is okay.
While the film’s themes carry universal appeal, Shi’s own distinctive heritage is gleefully stamped all over it. By setting the film in Toronto, where the Chinese-Canadian grew up, Shi injects plenty of references that will put an additional smile on the face of Canadian viewers. Of course, one does not need a deep knowledge of Canada to appreciate the film. Aside from the nods to Toronto, the various animation techniques the film incorporates pay wonderful homage to the manga and anime artist that influenced Shi’s youth. The frantic nature of some sections fits perfectly with the animation being employed and accentuates the fluctuating mood of the central protagonist. Couple this with the pop culture nods to everything from boy bands to Kaiju films and you have a film that will please all ages.
Turning Red is a delightful and heartwarming film that perfectly captures the ways puberty can complicate the bonds between mothers and daughters. The film solidifies Shi as a fresh and necessary voice in cinema.