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When I sat down to watch Pixar’s newest animated film about a girl who turns into a giant red panda when she becomes emotional, I didn’t expect to be throttled by the weight of intergenerational responsibility within the first minute. But there I was, listening to a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian called Mei talk about the thin line between honouring your parents and honouring yourself.
As a first-generation Chinese-Australian, the load of navigating cultural duties while finding your footing in the Western world is as much of a presence here in 2022, as it is for a kid in Toronto in 2002.
“I’m Meilin Lee. I wear what I want, say what I want, 24/7, 365,” Turning Red’s protagonist declares while strutting down the street with a Tamagotchi strapped to her backpack, stickers covering her flute case.
Seeing this boisterous, unabashed and outspoken character leaning into her intelligence and self-assuredness felt like seeing my younger self reflected back at me. Don’t get me wrong, she’s silly and a bit obnoxious in the way teenagers are, but that makes her all the more relatable as Pixar’s first contemporary tween girl protagonist.
“[Mei] is spunky, confident [and] dorky,” director Domee Shi tells Refinery29 Australia. “The movie explores that coming-of age-journey of who she needs to become — [does] she honour herself or her family or is there room for both?”.
While this story shares a very common yet specific struggle that a lot of immigrant and Asian kids experience, it’s not something that’s often been told with nuance in pop culture and media.
A lot of Asian kids in predominantly white spaces tend to reject their cultural identity growing up, myself included. Seeing someone abstain from this self-hating trope was powerful.
“It was important for me from the beginning that this wasn't your typical story of a militant parent who's very strict and forbidding, and a kid who feels oppressed and wants to break free,” Shi explains. “For Mei, and I think for myself and a lot of Asian immigrant kids, we really want to honour our parents, like we love them and the sacrifices that they've made for us. But she also is being pulled in this other direction [towards] her friends and boybands and whatever that represents for anyone else who watches it.”
“I think there's this struggle and sadness for her because she thinks if she goes one way, she's losing a little bit of the other thing, but she doesn't want to do that.”
What I found special — and what simultaneously shocked me — was Mei’s no-holds-barred love of being Chinese. In the movie, she loves hanging out with her mum, helping her run their family’s temple and devouring their home-cooked food. A lot of Asian kids in predominantly white spaces tend to reject their cultural identity growing up, myself included. Seeing someone abstain from this self-hating trope was powerful.
This bubblegum-pop — or “Asian tween fever dream” as Shi puts it — animation is a fast-paced, sugary hit of teen indulgence, underpinned by large themes of guilt, identity and responsibility.
This bubblegum-pop — or “Asian tween fever dream” as Shi puts it — animation is a fast-paced, sugary hit of teen indulgence, underpinned by large themes of guilt, identity and responsibility. With three original songs by Billie Eilish and Finneas, it’s both a nostalgic hit for millennials and an Encanto level of catchy hits for newer generations.
For research, Shi turned to the great hits of 2002 — Avril Lavigne, Sum 41 and Nellie Furtado became constant companions on her daily work commutes. Boy bands have been firmly cemented in teen sensibility for decades, from the Beatles to NSYNC to One Direction, and their presence is felt in Turning Red through 4*Town, a fictitious group with five members.
The plot is largely driven by Mei's unbridled desire to see the band live. It’s a deep yearning that 14-year-old me understands only too well (I went to a hotel that One Direction was staying at, in the hope that one of them would spot me and fall uncontrollably in love.)
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who voices one of Mei’s friends, reflects on her own experience of fandom. “I went to my first concert to see Marianas Trench [and] I lost my mind,” she says. “As soon as they came out on stage, [I was] bawling. I was done. I was so emotional and I didn't know why. But it just, it made sense.”
Being a teenage girl is one of the most thrilling, intoxicating and heart-wrenching experiences a human can endure. It’s a hormone-fuelled emotional rollercoaster — something that’s personified by Mei’s red panda transformations, as well as Shi’s hyper-exaggerated editing style that fuses both Western and Eastern animation and illustration styles.
“[Mei] changes on screen to reflect her emotions. When she's embarrassed, we really push the lighting and sound to reflect that. When she’s lusty, we really push the red lighting and her sweat and her expression just to really make the audience feel what Mei is feeling,” says Shi.
Turning Red is inspired by Shi’s own close relationship with her mother. Ever since she was little, she knew she wanted to draw for a living. When she found out about animation, she went all out.
“I did a pitch to my parents. I researched [and was] like, ’look, this is the average salary for a person working in animation’ and ‘look, you can work for big companies and they'll give you benefits.’ I had to almost like sell it to them a little bit,” she laughs.
“I was lucky in that my parents were pretty supportive from the beginning. I mean, they still put a lot of pressure on me, but they were like, ‘yes, you want to be an artist? Ok, you better practise every day.”