Shi definitely has a gift for portraying the difficulty of navigating from one generation to another with love being the ballast for the family.
Director Domee Shi
Screenplay Julia Cho, Domee Shi
Starring Rosalie Chang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Mattreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tritan Allerick Chen, James Hong
When we look back on Turning Red, it will be with an admiration in tackling a hard subject matter with grace as well as accuracy. The story is a cute and sometimes quaint exploration of changes in childhood which can resonate into adulthood when one is raising children of one’s own.
Chaing is Mei Lee, a just-turned-13-year-old in 2002, who has a great relationship with her somewhat oppressive mother, Ming (Oh). This arrangement works for both until the moment Mei discovers an interest in boys. This interest is disguised as cleverly drawn pictures depicting romantic images, but most viewers will get the point. Her interest in a 5 piece boy band 4 Town also weighs heavily in the story. Needless to say, when Ming discovers her daughters obsessive drawings, a cavalcade of embarrassment follows.
The next morning, she wakes up as a Red Panda. At first, Mei’s parents mistake her reactions and hiding as something else. We know it’s puberty, of course, either way, but Shi pushes the delightful metaphor into the forefront and the middle act of the story – the quest to see the boy band with her trio of friends.
The Red Panda is a “blessing” on the female members of Mei’s family. Though it’s hard to figure it as a blessing when the goal is to suppress this answered prayer of an ancient matriarch in the form of a talisman of one sort of another. Mei is not up with any of this nonsense at first, as it comes as a complete shock to her whole existence and begins to dominate her every thought.
The transformation is handled in a manner that even parents in Florida could appreciate, as we see things in a metaphorical manner that can be read one way by children, another by teenagers and even another by parents. This is the kind of genius that most people with agendas will not know how to present ideas, but it thrived in the censorship era of film making.
The story has takes a willing suspension of disbelief for most of the teenage interactions to embarrasment. Sometimes the reactions are extreme (no doubt a reflection of Mei’s internal struggle) and then subsequent scenes seem to move straight from mockery to fascinated acceptance. The Red Panda is definitely much cuter than acne and other potentially embarrassing outgrowths of a teenager’s life.
Most important aspect of this film is that it reveals enough to be entertaining, but leaves room for questions that can be asked later. The film doesn’t try to wedge in politics about how families should raise their children. Toronto of 2002 is a multicultural melting pot of the best time. There are no oppressors and there are no points to be made about other generations, other than the age old question on the childhood being the parent of the grown adult. Even if there are some cultural differences between how one viewer’s family exists as compared to the Lee’s, there is a universal truth that resonates.
If you have children, it’s a pretty safe bet that this film will work for most ages pre-and-mid-pubescent. Neither of my kids were interested in watching this movie, but they don’t leave their room a lot since Covid allowed them to discovered the miracle of having phone conversations with all of their friends at once. I am sure they will enjoy this film later, when they have become parents of their own adulthood.
Shi has done something wonderfui here, following up her deightful Oscar-winning short Bao. Shi definitely has a gift for portraying the difficulty of navigating from one generation to another with love being the ballast for the family. Her voice is necessary in this time when so many angry voices about under-and-over-representation are screaming. Shi’s stories are a measure of peace in the storm of life.
(****1/2 out of *****)