March 10, 2022

CINEMA | Chinese-Canadian Heritage – 'Turning Red' Panda

"You'll get whipped up into a frenzy and panda all over the place!"
Rosalie Chiang Sandra Oh Domee Shi | Turning Red | Disney Pixar
Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios
Pixar Animation and Chinese-Canadian animator Domee Shi, who makes her feature-length debut after writing and directing the Oscar-winning animated short Bao, have created a very specific coming-of-age story of teenage growth. Set in 2002 Toronto, Turning Red follows the spunky Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old girl who suddenly transforms into a giant red panda whenever she experiences any strong emotion like anger or excitement due to her ancestors' mystic connections.

Ottawa native Sandra Oh co-stars as the hilarious voice of Ming, Mei's strict, overbearing, and protective tiger mom. How the story and characters use eastern mysticism and the act of transforming into an animal for an obvious allegory for the horrors of puberty is amusing aided by the soft pastel colour palette. Its explanation for the repression of strong emotions and inheriting intergeneration trauma passed down in Chinese society is also cleverly layered.

Written by playwright Julia Cho and Shi, who share story credit with Sarah Streicher, the specificity of the film's cultural touchstones is also fairly admirable. In particular, its clear obsession with boy bands feels so authentically expressed through original pop songs written by Billie Eilish and Finneas. Composer Ludwig Göransson's musical score peppers into enough eastern notes to make the whole Asian aesthetic further pleasing.

There's plenty of cringey charm and entertaining appeal to Shi's very personal animated middle school adventure of awkward adolescent self-discovery showing a struggling pre-teen on the verge of full-blown teenage hormones, feelings, and emotions. Turning Red's soulful metamorphosis masks its more straightforward monster movie fun well.

Turning Red is available to stream on Disney+.

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