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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Review: Contending with a coming-of-age culture clash in ‘Turning Red’

The film demonstrates the difficulties puberty presents within a teen’s journey of self-discovery

By SUN YIE — arts@theaggie.org 

 

This article contains spoilers about the film “Turning Red.”

 

Pixar’s new film, “Turning Red,” follows 13 year old Chinese-Canadian Mei as she learns to navigate her world with the help of her friends and her well-intentioned, albeit overbearing, family after experiencing startling bodily transformations. Domee Shi, the director of “Turning Red,” and her all-female creative leadership team weave together a variety of ideas, like familial relationships, Asian culture and the horror of puberty and periods, and frame them in a way that is still a novel and refreshing coming-of-age story. 

To demonstrate, “Turning Red” takes a progressive plunge forward in normalizing periods and depicts this through a poignant and yet humorous scene between Mei and her mother, Ming, who asks, “Did the… did the red peony bloom?” after Mei, locked behind the bathroom door, refuses to go to school — unbeknownst to Ming, Mei’s real reason for missing school is because she has a much bigger problem at hand, as she’s transformed into a red panda!

Though the scene provokes a laugh at Ming’s overbearing character, as she barges into the bathroom with an armful of pads, ibuprofen, vitamins and a warm water bottle, it also embraces an open and direct conversation about periods and puberty that isn’t found in any other Pixar coming-of-age film.

Periods are still relatively stigmatized, especially in Canada, in the sense that some people still regarded them with disgust and shame, leaving girls to feel alone in navigating their new and uncomfortable bodily transitions, which is why Mei and Ming’s bathroom scene in “Turning Red” is so significant.

Shi confesses that this film pitch to Pixar was her “weirdest one” and elaborates on the significance of Mei and Ming’s conversation in an Uproxx interview, saying, “It’s so weird because it happens to every woman, every girl, but you don’t just hear about it or talk about it… but we all go through it… but in that moment you feel so alone.” 

Though I found the film’s approach in destigmatizing periods to be quite compelling, I was admittedly more captivated by Mei’s pubescent struggle to reconcile her culture with her character growth and her newfound identity. 

In the beginning, Mei and Ming seem to be an impenetrable mother-and-daughter duo, sharing both temple responsibilities and strong opinions about their favorite Chinese drama. Their open conversation about periods serves as a testament to their bond, especially considering how most Asian families struggle to discuss topics surrounding womanhood and sexuality with their growing children. 

Though there are moments where the audience can see Mei disagree with her mother, such as when her mother confronts Devon, the cashier at the Daisy Mart convenience store, after discovering Mei’s scandalous sketches about him, she remains silent in an effort to stay in her mother’s good graces and to follow her mantra of honoring her parents, a lesson ingrained in her since birth. 

As the film continues, Mei reveals her transformation to her friends who reassure her that they love her, “panda or no panda,” while Ming believes she should lock her “unruly beast” away by partaking in an ancient cultural ritual, and the two begin to drift apart as a result. In order to raise tickets to see “4Town,” a famous boy band that makes Mei and her friends swoon, Mei commercializes her panda and even learns to love herself in the process, but this distances her even more from her mother, who must perform their usual temple responsibilities alone. 

Mei’s struggle with bridging her heritage with her new identity becomes even more evident when her grandmother and aunties visit from Florida to help her perform the ceremony on the same night of the “4Town” concert. Though she agrees to perform the ceremony to make her family happy, she grapples with indecision, and the film even depicts this struggle as a physical one, as Mei begins to convulse while she levitates during the ceremony. 

Mei and Ming’s tumultuous relationship reaches its climax when Mei decides she not only wants to keep her panda, a decision that already horrifies Mei’s mother and the rest of her family, but also wants to attend the concert. Ming is so hurt by Mei’s decision that she unlocks her own red panda and follows Mei, terrorizing the “4Town” concert in the process of lecturing her daughter. 

Mei and Ming hurl their grievances at each other at the concert while everyone else is evacuating, and Ming’s own cultural trauma comes to light in the process. Ming roars, “I never went to concerts! I put my family first. I tried to be a good daughter,” echoing the “Family First” sentiment that is all too common among Asian families. Mei, enraged by the implication that her decision to attend the concert means she’s failed to be a “good daughter,” strikes her mother unconscious and then participates in the ceremony to help her mother transform back into her human form. 

The most poignant scene of the film occurs when Mei finds herself in the spiritual world once more, except this time, she is with her mother. Ming has reverted to her younger self, presumably the version that hurt her own mother, as she sobs, “It’s all my fault… I got so angry, and I lost control. I’m just so sick of being perfect! I’m never gonna be good enough…” This scene is reminiscent of Mei’s own feelings of inadequacy in her journey to bridge her cultural heritage with her changing identity, and it was one that moved me the most in my reflection of this film. 

The fear of not living up to my parents’ expectations plagued me in my teen years. Like Mei, I found myself involved in extracurriculars not because I enjoyed them, but because I was desperate to earn my parents’ approval; likewise, I found myself pretending like I hated other activities, like painting and writing stories, because I knew my parents deemed them a waste of time. Like Mei, I was afraid the search for my own identity would cause me to lose my parents, and by extension, my family, and I acted out in other ways because I didn’t know how to express myself in a way that would have been acceptable for them. 

But “Turning Red” suggests that losing old parts of ourselves as we grow is inevitable. The fundamental takeaway of the film is that it’s important to honor your parents, but not to the extent where you neglect yourself. In the spiritual realm, Mei makes a final stand against Ming as they stand on opposite sides of the portal and declares, “I’m finally figuring out who I am, but… I’m scared it’ll take me away from you.” 

This scene depicts the first time Mei is able to disagree with her mother and make a decision that doesn’t involve pretense or passive aggression. She understands that losing her old connection with her family might be an inevitable consequence of her growth, but she also recognizes that the change in her family dynamic doesn’t mean she’s lost them forever. 

 

Written by: Sun Yie — arts@theaggie.org

 

 

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