dir: Domee Shi
I may be about the furthest thing away from a teenaged Chinese-Canadian girl on the cusp of maturity who finds herself turning into a giant red panda whenever she’s emotional or overwhelmed, but I still found a lot to enjoy and relate to in Pixar’s latest foray into the minds and hearts of confused kids and patient, slightly baffled adults.
It feels like such a cop out to say “it’s no Inside Out”, but Inside Out was so great, and this flick is trying to tell a different kind of story in a different kind of way, though no less entertaining, and that’s great too.
It’s working in a different emotional register, and yet it’s also something of a period piece. I didn’t realise the triple meaning of what I just wrote in the last sentence, but I’m not deleting it, not just yet.
Mei (Rosalie Chieng) is a thirteen year old dork living in Toronto, I guess(?) She’s a high achiever academically, has a group of friends, but her first and only loyalty seems to be to her parents, specifically her mother (Sandra Oh). The mum is very much the “tiger mom” stereotype popularised by Amy Chua in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and has been a well-worn cliché in American and even Australian comedy and drama for decades.
In the depiction of multicultural societies and cities, it’s really easy (and lazy) to single out families from Asian backgrounds as exemplifying this idea that migrant parents torment their children into becoming violin prodigies or maths geniuses, because without the threats of violence or the withholding of love / approval / affection, then no kid would ever succeed at anything.
What these stories often leave out in these narratives, whether they’re personal ones or not, is that all sorts of families, migrant or otherwise, have parents with expectations, who range from over-involved and threatening to barely there if at all, and that the kids (who survive) end up as normal people, or geniuses who become fuckups, or fuckups who still go on to live meaningful lives, because not everyone ends up first chair in the orchestra or the Head of Complicated Surgery at Most Expensive Hospital. There’s lots of us in between, and that’s okay.
It’s such a rote but complicated idea, and it’s one this film specifically wrestles with, under the guise of the Confucian ideal of filial piety (essentially being a groveling, no-life doormat in order to keep your parents happy) and whether a young woman’s life should be dedicated to pacifying her nightmare mother, or whether she should be free to follow her own path, and follow her own passions.
This being an animated movie, and a Pixar one at that, they of course find the best way to navigate this twisted pathway through the tween minefield by representing Mei’s growing maturity as a myth relevant to this specific family that has the females of the family “afflicted” with a curse that essentially turns them into red pandas. A goddess of some description, called Sun Yee gifted one of Mei’s ancestors with the power to turn into a giant red panda in order to protect her family and village. Now all her female descendants also inherit this power, but, once Mei’s parents find out, they have the fix for it, don’t you know.
The way that this comes about isn’t the way you think (even though the reference at first to what Mei’s mum thinks is happening results in the most awkward question of all time “has the red peony (flower) bloomed?” to which Mei’s garbled response convinces the mum It’s Menarche Time!, and has her throw literal boxes of pads at her daughter.
Well, yeah, it’s not subtle, I mean, the flick is called Turning Red. The only way it could have been more obvious and more roundabout would be if they’d called it Scarlet Auntie Visits Again for the First Time.
Why isn’t Pixar asking me to title their movies, anyway?
But it’s not really just about that. The way that her panda self manifests for the first time arises because of something completely different from estrogen and the miseries of puberty. Mei and her friends adore a particular boyband called 4Town, with 5 boys in the band so beautiful, buff and bland that of course everyone under 15 adores them. But for Mei and her friends it’s not (yet) the kind of desire that we as mature, expensive cocktail drinking, tuxedo wearing adults understand.
And when “it” happens, it’s not even in relation to the boy band. When one of her friends points out that the clerk at a convenience store called Devon is cute, Mei is convinced there is absolutely nothing cute about him whatsoever. In fact, as she starts drawing pictures of him in her textbook over and over again, she keeps trying to find new ways to depict how completely uninteresting she finds him, through hundreds and hundreds of drawings.
Um, what’s with that weird feeling she’s feeling?
The drawings themselves are sweet, and not what you’d think (and far more innocent probably that half the crap scrawled into the backs of books at least in the pre-digital era, by boys, girls and those who identify as gender non-conforming and other variations thereof), but there are pictures of him as a mermaid, or merman, I guess is the phrase? Anyway, as you’d expect, when Mei’s mum finds the notebook she remains chill and definitely doesn’t overact to the point where she shows the goddamn pictures to Devon and accuses him of molesting her daughter.
That’s… a bit much, even though it’s all played for humour, but it’s the sheer staggering level of embarrassment and humiliation that actually triggers Mei’s transformation into the large, furry beast that threatens to devour everything.
It’s hard being a teenager, after all, and when you transform into a giant red panda, you’re going to feel like you are going to stand out even more, and most teenagers would rather be able to spontaneously have holes appear in the ground in order to be swallowed up by the earth if not forever then at least for a long while.
For Mei’s parents, though they aren’t too freaked out, they do treat it both as something shameful, but also as something that can be controlled. Instead of saying “well, hey, about 12 times a year for the next forty years you’re going to transform into a giant red panda”, they say “we have a ritual we can do at the next blood moon that can lock away the giant red panda forever”.
So Mei’s locked in on a particular night where a ceremony is going to occur that can separate her from the giant red panda within. I dunno, as an allegory about finding your own path in life or on the shadow self within and how it can manifest, this is starting to sound like a metaphor for female genital mutilation.
Except it’s not permanent? Their panda self can be separated, but it gets locked into an object or a piece of jewelry, and at a moment extremely convenient to the plot, this item can be shattered and the monstrous panda that lurks within (only these?) women can be unleashed to tower over all.
It kinda breaks down as either a metaphor or an allegory, but I didn’t mind it too much, because ultimately the decision for Mei becomes whether she’s going to do what she wants with her panda self, or whether she’s going to do what her monstrous mother wants, which is to lock up that side of herself, and remain an obedient, over-achieving doormat.
Even the way the mum terrorises and is dismissive of Mei’s friends is meant to keep Mei isolated and vulnerable. But Mei loves her friends. A lot. Thinking about the support and love of her friends is pretty much the only thing that can help her control her panda side when it gets out of control.
And then of course the conflict arises between the one night when 4#Town play in Toronto, and the fact that it happens to be the night of the blood moon ritual to cage the feminine beast within…
It sounds like it’s dealing with serious issues in a cutesy package, and of course that’s exactly what it’s doing. Except I would argue it does it (mostly) more successfully than some other Pixar and Disney flicks of recent vintage (oxymoronic word choices much?), especially Brave and Onward and even Encanto, in how they deal with the difficulty of a kid not wanting to disappointment their parent or grandparent, but still wanting to forge their own path.
The keenest part of the flick, beyond the trite bromides of the importance of being yourself and following your dreams etc, is that it’s honest and celebratory about young girls and their crushes / passions. Instead of mocking Mei and her friends for being utterly obsessed with the boy band and the boys within it, or for their crushes on Devon, it celebrates them for feeling their feelings and doing what they can about it, in their own goofy ways.
That’s why I think it’s set in the past, because I guess in the peak boyband era, girls (and a few boys) acting like the Beatles have come to town for the first time seems possible, whereas in our jaded, post-it’s-still-happening-covid times, crying and screaming with joy / lust over a band seems anachronistic.
The ending… I dunno. I really don’t know about the ending. As much as I appreciated the idea of Mei’s mum transforming into a red panda that would give Godzilla nightmares, I really didn’t, in the end, grasp how and what what was happening beyond the purely literal, in that generations of the family’s women, who have all locked their pandas away, unleash their pandas in order to trap someone’s panda, and then they trap their pandas again? I lost track of the metaphor, yet again.
And though it’s sad that Mei unleashes her giant red panda and kills everyone in Toronto before eating all members of 4*Town, I guess you could say they all had it coming.
They fucked around, then they found out.
Maybe that’s not really the ending, who knows? Maybe I’m not spoiling the ending, or maybe it’s early onset dementia.
I was pretty happy watching this, and enjoyed my time in Mei’s world. I don’t know if tween or teenaged girls and boys will like it as much as I did, but then that’s their loss if they didn’t.
Turning Red. I’m feeling embarrassed just thinking about it
8 times if I could turn into a red panda it would just be to steal all the tasty bamboo out of 10
“We've all got an inner beast. We've all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away. And a lot of us never let it out. But I did. How about you?” - Turning Red