movie review

Turning Red Has No Obligations

Photo: Disney/Pixar

For all that we measure out recognition in pangs, the experience of seeing some fragment of yourself onscreen is usually assumed to be a positive one. But the rush of familiarity brought on by Domee Shi’s 2018 short, Bao, made me feel bad in ways I struggled to articulate. I welled up from almost the first frame: The eight-minute film, about a Chinese Canadian empty nester channeling her feelings about her estranged son into an anthropomorphic dumpling, is astonishingly efficient at extracting tears. But I resented as much as admired that effectiveness. It’s hard not to begrudge something that shows you what an easy mark you are when it comes to diasporic pain points so classic as to also be clichés — the controlling first-generation mother, the rebellious Westernized kid, the guilt, the sacrifice, the disappointment.

When hashing out that ambivalence with friends, we found ourselves comparing Bao’s protagonist to our respective mothers (Chinese, Chinese by way of Singapore, Japanese by way of Peru), and then wondering why we needed to, aside from that the film was burdened by representing various firsts — first Pixar production centered on an Asian woman, first Pixar short from a woman director. Maybe it’s that the simplicity of Bao (which, like most of the animation giant’s shorts, is wordless) gave it the feeling of a fable that we were supposed to take ownership of, whether those were its intentions or not. One friend bristled at how terminally second-gen it is to envision an immigrant matriarch so devoted to her son that her life revolves around him, even in his absence. And yet despite her complaints, the startling pivot point in Bao’s parent-child allegory stuck with her. Months later, she couldn’t help but reach for it when describing an acquaintance’s situation with his own mother: “She ate him!

She was talking about the scene in which, in a panic over being left behind by her surrogate child the way she was by her human one, the mother in Bao gobbles down the adorable food baby rather than let him walk away from her. It’s disturbing and it’s the absolute highlight, the moment when it becomes clear that Shi is interested in making something darker and stranger than Subtle Asian Traits: The Animated Movie, and it feels like that seed from which Shi’s new movie was grown. Turning Red is her feature debut, and it’s the best thing Pixar has released in years. While it’s once again about a Chinese Canadian mother and child, it’s neither dutiful in its treatment of them nor loaded down by obligations to meet the impossible expectations of a whole disparate demographic of viewers. Effervescent and ridiculous and grounded in a pastel-shaded Toronto and the nearby throwback details of 2002, it has texture and specificity to spare, and the only person it cares to speak on behalf of is its 13-year-old heroine, Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang).

Mei is an unabashed dork who loves Canada; her grade-eight crew of Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park); the boy band 4*Town; and her parents Ming (Sandra Oh) and Jin Lee (Orion Lee), though her suffocatingly close relationship with her helicoptering mother is more complicated than she’s willing to acknowledge. She also loves herself, at least until she unexpectedly transforms into a giant red panda one night. She has come into her matrilineal inheritance, a blessing passed down from a distant warrior ancestor that has in modern times become, as Ming carefully phrases it, “an inconvenience.” The panda, which emerges whenever Mei experiences strong emotions, is an unmistakable stand-in for puberty — curvier, hairier, and muskier, though admittedly standard adolescence doesn’t also usually include growing a tail. This new animalistic side arrives alongside an eruption of teen hormones that has her gawping at a Bieber-banged classmate and furiously doodling sketches of herself in a clinch with the local mini-mart clerk.

The beautiful weirdness of Mei’s nascent sexuality — she enjoys drawing her favorite 4*Town member as a merman — makes the inevitable arrival of shame into her life all the more painful. It’s not the panda’s fault. The panda, fluffy and free, represents Mei at her most unfettered, dancing up a storm and posing for pictures and serving as the life of the party once Mei and her friends figure out that they can monetize Mei’s metamorphosis to buy 4*Town tickets. The shame comes from Ming. She had it instilled in her by Mei’s even more iron-willed grandmother, who eventually shows up with a battalion of aunties for a ceremony meant to seal Mei’s inner beast away forever. There’s a core of raw, unresolved generational hurt in Turning Red, in the way that Mei feels trapped by her mother’s hopes and dreams for her, and the way that Ming harbors tamped-down resentment about never feeling good enough for her own mother, a pattern she couldn’t help repeating. But the movie isn’t interested in staging a battle in which Eastern values are neatly pitted against Western permissiveness.

What Turning Red wants for its characters is only to carve out a space in which being a good daughter doesn’t require an erasure of self. In doing that, it allows Ming — hovering outside Mei’s school, waiting to watch Mandarin-language dramas with her at night — to be not some Tiger Mom incarnate, but a woman who has made her child her best friend and who is terrified of being lonely when that child embarks on a life of her own. Representation can be an awfully flimsy thing to invest in, as Pixar’s parent company, Disney, has handily demonstrated in funding the backers of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill while touting its “diverse stories” as being “more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort.” The thrill of Turning Red is the way its characters feel neither typecast nor actively at war with type. They simply are a goofball kid and a fearsome but fearful adult trying to figure out how their relationship will grow with time rather than calcify into something brittle and broken.

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Turning Red Has No Obligations