Set in Toronto in 2002, ‘Turning Red’ is an unapologetic, no-holds-barred exploration into the world of a Chinese Canadian 13-year-old named Mei Lee. The narrative leans into the familiar characteristics of her demographic: Mei has a tiger mom, who only wants the best for her, and so Mei is an overachiever with the best grades and full of extra-curricular activities. But she’s also 13, so she and her friends – Miriam, Priya, and Abby – are also infatuated with the boyband 4*Town. At the onset, it looks like every other coming-of-age story of four teens who may be outsiders of the school hierarchy (but not as severe as this is Canada and not America) and have to navigate this awkward part of life. But the story interweaves Asian mysticism and spirituality into the mix for incredible results.
Because Mei’s family, through her mother’s line, has a mystical gift (or curse) that transforms the women of the family into giant red pandas when feeling strong emotions. This becomes the source of all the character growth and comedy for the story.
The story, written and directed by Domee Shi and co-written Julia Cho and Sarah Streicher, is not even coy about how this supernatural transformation is a metaphor for puberty that is centered on the female experience. The mood swings, the rebelliousness, and even the color red are indicators of this apparent symbolism.
And so as Mei has to deal with this transformation happening in her body, she’s beginning to explore the facets of her personality that she didn’t know were there.
In the process, the film explores the Chinese cultural bonds of family that can be very familiar to a lot of the Asian audiences — the expectations and high demands, the controlling, the conservatism – and the vast generational gap of first and second (and even third) generation immigrants to Western countries.
So while ‘Turning Red’ is a supernatural story with Mei Lee transforming into a giant red panda at the funniest moments (and also sometimes at very serious events), the film is grounded by very serious issues about family ties and the generational trauma caused by the gap in morals and values between generations.
And as heavy as these topics might be, ‘Turning Red’ manages to do so in hilarious ways. The four friends’ love of the boyband 4*Town is exactly alike to Generation X’s love for the Backstreet Boys and N*Sync or the new generation’s love for Kpop idols and boy groups. The language and verbal quips of the four friends are masterfully written with some hilarious lines while the tonal shifts of the older members of Mei’s family are clearly different. It’s quite amazing.
And the way with which it captures the frenetic energy of the teenage years and the things they obsess over and think about (that seems so trivial to us now that we are older) is so on point. Director Domee Shi is also quite gifted in being able to shift focus, playing around with the images for wonderful visual comedy, highlighting the film’s verbal wit, and giving moments to really define each character and make them unique.
Each friend is marked by an individual personality, but you can see why this group are friends.
So as much fun as it is to watch Mei navigate the rigors of high school as she has to stop herself from getting triggered from transforming into a giant red panda, what we have in this film is a deep exploration of a vivid world of teenage girls at the brink of change. And the ironic thing is that as precise as this film feels in presenting a world set in 2002, a lot of the issues are still prevalent today.
‘Turning Red’ is funny and charming and relatable and surprising at every turn. It makes really good use of excellent storytelling and lavish visuals to tell a really moving story about generational gaps and coming to terms with your identity.
Pixar does it again.