screenplay by Julia Cho, Domee Shi
directed by Domee Shi
by Walter Chaw There's a classic ONION article where an Asian San Francisco dry cleaner is picketed for upholding harmful Asian stereotypes that I think about a lot--especially when I wonder what would happen if I ever wrote something about my experiences with a domineering mother and a father who often stood by and watched when I could've used a champion. There are so few representations of Asian-Americans in American film that the other edge of that sword of getting a shot at telling a story is, what if the story we tell is merely a (hopefully) more nuanced version of the same old shit? Asian women are slotted into two types by this culture: prostitutes and dragon ladies--the assumption being that the former eventually ages into the latter. They are fetish objects with their own category in porn and shorthands for stentorian parenting and management styles, heavy on the scolding and light on the positive affirmation. These stereotypes arise from WWII GI encounters with brothels in Pacific war zones and a myth of Asian exceptionalism constructed to pit Asians against Blacks in the United States. I have seen white versions of these characters as well (both the whore and the drill sergeant-as-mom), but I have also seen the entire range of human possibility expressed through white faces and bodies in the same films. What I have not seen is a similar courtesy extended to minority characters. One dragon lady in a movie filled with other Asian faces and experiences is fine; it wouldn't even be unrealistic. When it's the only characterization, however, it's a problem that actually gets people murdered. I mean, no one watches Carrie and thinks Mrs. White is a stand-in for all white mothers.
Turning Red has a problem, one exacerbated by being not well thought-through. I think it's careless because it's likely semi-autobiographical--but however I contorted to try to see the mystical twist in the film as a standalone metaphor (which it is), it's still one of those Ancient Chinese Ancestor mumbo-jumbo things that tend to other Asian-North Americans in the diaspora. Would the fact of Turning Red's hero Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) living in a literal temple have been fine were there other Asian homes visible that were not centred around a shrine? Yes. I mean, it's fine as it is, too--don't get me wrong. But Turning Red, the first Pixar film on which a woman has received sole credit as director (an Asian-Canadian woman, as it happens), is saddled with a gigantic and obviously unfair burden to present a different version of Asians living in the West--one that doesn't include dragon ladies, shrines to ancestors, or mysticism, because, frankly, that's exactly what white creators have been doing with their Asian characters from the start. Shang Chi isn't a kid living in San Francisco and doing a little valet work to fund his slacking-off: he's a secret martial artist, the greatest in the multiverse, with an immortal father and mystical jewelry handed down through millennia, and something about honour and losing face.
Is it possible that only stories with these elements get the Disney platform? Certainly. Not only is it possible, it's probable, given that it's a formula proven to be both familiar and safe--euphemisms, each, for "profitable" to a monocultural corporate algorithm that has shown a cunning gift for appropriating cultures, the better to assimilate new audiences. The holders might be a different colour, but their money's still green. What I'm saying is that while Turning Red's director and co-writer Domee Shi is speaking her truth, what's sorely missing is the context of other Asian experiences beyond one that's already very familiar to Western audiences. I'm not saying to tell a lie--I'm asking to see the home of Mei's friend Abby (Hyein Park), presumably not a Chinese Temple/tourist attraction. The problem Turning Red has, in other words, is that as a unicorn, it has the responsibility thrust upon it to be all things to an underrepresented and ritually abused demographic. As someone who is so often the only minority in various environments, I know that pressure well.
Dealing with it on its own terms, Turning Red is also problematic. It's the story of how 13-year-old Mei lives under the authoritarian thumb of her helicopter nightmare of a Chinese mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), and Mei decides one day, because she very much wants to attend a boy-band concert with her buddies, that she doesn't want to live that way anymore. Ming is herself a victim of terrible mom-based trauma, we learn, and she expresses it through rejecting Mei's need for privacy, agency, and individuality. She comes upon sketches Mei has made in a notebook one night and immediately humiliates her in front of her classmates and the alleged object of her affections, who's the subject of Mei's amorous (and humorous/tame) drawings. It's played for laughs, but I found it to be painful and violent. In a different movie, without a single note adjusted, this scene leads to Mei's depression up to potentially suicidal ideation. Something like this happened to me on the bus when I was in sixth grade, and I still think about it.
The film hints at the abuse Mei has just suffered in a fairly horrifying nightmare that night and then through her physical transformation the following morning into a giant red panda. It bears mentioning that Mei's father Jin (Orion Lee) is treated like a child ("No sugar!") by his overbearing wife and has, for the most part, accepted his role as quiet observer to the pressure placed on his daughter. He's absent--until the end, when he acts as the voice of calm reason in the face of a maelstrom of brutalizing Asian-women caricatures. Does Ming represent a specific type of Asian woman? She sure does. The same way Carrie's mom represents one extreme of white parentage. The key difference between Turning Red and Carrie is mainly one of tone: the one a lighthearted slapstick supernatural romp through sitcom situations, the other a supernatural reckoning with child abuse and bullying. Turning Red is Carrie played for warm tingles, which would be interesting if it didn't take as the source of its tension a destructive stereotype of Asian parenting. It's still enjoyable, but it's dangerous, too.
Ming believes Mei has started her period ("Has the red peony bloomed?") and then continues to humiliate Mei at school by stalking her there, getting into a physical altercation with the school's guard, and delivering sanitary pads to her young daughter in front of her classmates. The Red Panda appears whenever Mei ("Mei Mei" in the picture, which means "little sister"--it's what Jiang Wen calls Jyn Erso in Rogue One) loses her cool--which, of course, happens a lot when you're a teen and your hormones become an every-flavour bean of chaotic evil. As a metaphor, Mei's transformation does a lot of heavy lifting. It's adolescence, of course, and also actualization--that period of time where a person fully becomes an individual at odds with the parent. It turns out that Mei is one of an entire ancient lineage of emotional shapeshifters, which could be shorthand for "women be crazy," just as the title of the film struck me immediately as shorthand for a cautionary tale about becoming communist. Being called "red" is one of the ways I was bullied as a child. The cruel irony of that being, of course, that my family--and many of the families no longer in Mainland China and based in Toronto, let's say--fled the Communist takeover, first to Taiwan, then to the beautiful country for a better future away from "Red China," their home. In any case, the title and central conceit of turning red demonstrate a real sloppiness, even insensitivity, to Asian-American/Canadian audiences that might wish to see different aspects of their personhood represented at last. Worse, when the reinforcements come in the form of the entire female side of Mei's extended family--four shallow, materialistic aunties and Mei's harridan grandmother (Ching Ho-Wai)--they are variations on Ming's caricature of Asian women. A late play for how they're all victims of an airless patriarchal society is insufficient as a sop while simultaneously playing into other familiar Western stereotypes of Asian cultures. There's truth in this experience, yes, but not only is it not the totality of experience, it doesn't provide a single alternative to it, either.
Worth unpacking in detail is how Mei and her friends conspire to make enough money to go to the big concert, and how their ploy is in essence the same business as the cultural tourism business in which her parents are engaged. Mei discovers that her Red Panda persona is irresistibly cuddly and endlessly meme-able/Instagrammable, and that she can charge money to her classmates for posed selfies. The red panda, established as an emblem of Mei's culture and history, is immediately exploited by Mei for cash. Banking on her other-ness is now her business. She has internalized her tokenism. Internalizing a culture's racism is an unavoidable side effect of being born and raised in that culture. We are all larded to the hairline with bias that determines how we see other people, but most insidiously how we see ourselves. Because of my internalized racism, I've spent my whole life hating the way I look and chasing evidence that I could be attractive to white women. Self-loathing, self-esteem issues, depression--all tied up with the riddle of assimilation for kids unable to pass. I have in the past used my perfect Asian pidgin accent to garner laughs and a kind of acceptance among white people, reassurance for them that I wasn't that kind of Asian, the sensitive and proud kind. In playing into their guiltiest expectations, I freed them from it for a while. And in the process, I freed myself of the discomfort and tension they experienced in my company.
Eventually, Mei "sells" herself to her bully, Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen), for his birthday party. It's an unpleasant arrangement that ends with Tyler saying, "You want your money? Get your butt down here, now." He later yells about her "psycho mom" and "creepy temple" before Mei pounces on him with possibly murderous intentions. Ming, you know, is so close to getting it when she accuses Mei's friends of using her. She's made to be the villain--and she is, for the bulk of the film--but she's not wrong in this moment. Mei, the pariah, has found acceptance through the minstrelsy of her culture, and that's as heartbreaking as it is common. Ming is reacting against the casting of her daughter in the other Asian female trope in the west: the prostitute.
What works about Turning Red is the universal message of what seems to be the great majority of children's entertainments in the United States: that is, be yourself. When the father finally speaks up for his daughter, he tells her there are many aspects to a person's personality, and one of them is probably messy. He says the answer to that messiness is not to suppress it, but to find a way to live alongside it as a part of yourself and not an affliction. He confides that Mei's mother was once like her. One night in my teens, as I was leaving my house after a screaming match with my mother, during which I turned to my father and asked him why he was just sitting there while she was saying terrible things to me, he ran after me for the first and only time and said, sadly, that my mom loved me and there was a time when I was her 宝宝, her "little treasure." I said to him that was a long time ago. My mom will soon die of a cancer she left untreated, and I'll mourn when she goes, but not for the mother I had: for the mother I needed. These little talks from fathers tend to come, if they come at all, too late to heal the damage of years of spectating. It's remarkable to see this scene in a film, and it's here that Shi's identity matters to the piece. There is no Western analogue to this type of parenting that casts the parent in question in a positive light.
Like many of the stunning, alien interpersonal exchanges in Lulu Wang's The Farewell, I found this moment to be exquisitely insightful and just as exquisitely painful. The showdown between Mei's desire to be respected as an individual and Ming's desire to be respected at all costs comes when Ming's "red panda" explodes out into a stories-high kaiju. It is the exact image James Gunn plays to brilliant, savage effect in his The Suicide Squad, as it happens: the monstrous mother come to demand obedience from the wayward daughter. I liked that. I liked less the other-dimensional bamboo grove where all the red pandas in this matrilineal nightmare gather to choose whether to return to human form at the expense of their individuality and spirit or to retain some measure of freedom in their lives by embracing their wildness. The message is that we should learn to live with the wholeness of ourselves ("My panda, my choice, mom")--but of all the women in her family, only Mei chooses to allow herself any sort of carefully-meted-out, society-breaking wildness. The message gets muddier and muddier. For Ming, it's back to selling tours of the family temple to tourists, now with a real magic red panda occasionally making a cameo to scare up a few more bucks, and...phew.
The trap for minority creators is that they are, for the most part, still working for white masters. The choice for them is between delivering what will gratify culturally-ratified expectations or speaking truth to power--and in the process potentially alienating the studio and the white-dominated critical community. Do the one and earn wider distribution and the opportunity to do it again for themselves while holding the door open for other minority creators to upset the applecart down the road. Do the other, as Chloé Zhao did with Eternals and Lana Wachowski did with The Matrix Resurrections, and make strong statements about the incorruptibility of artists' voices while closing the door for other minority creators following behind. Release the red panda at your peril, or only in the cause of the greater exploitative profit margin. The problem with a film like Turning Red is that it's largely indistinguishable from films by white creators exoticizing Asian culture and characters. Compare it to Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle's remarkable "Pen15", a TV series that troubles many of the same mother/daughter, cross-cultural waters as Turning Red without indulging in broad depictions of locked-in Western stereotypes. There, Maya and her mother Yuki are not tethered to a magical motherland, thick with animal spirits and enchanted totems. Turning Red doesn't advance the ball; Turning Red is what happens when your culture has been so diminished and colonized that when we tell our own stories, finally, we discover that we're feeding into the same regressive cliches. What I'm saying is I laughed a few times, though I didn't always know why I was laughing--and that's a sensation I don't love, given how often in my life I or my culture were the punchlines. Maybe it's a "me" problem, this inability to relax and have fun with the shenanigans of a wilful little girl with terrible parents adrift among kids fetishizing her appearance for cash to give to a contrived construct engineered to separate children from their money. Maybe it's all the meta-implications that are throwing me off. Maybe none of it would matter if there were real, and meaningful, representation at the executive level at these soulless product mills. For us, there are still independent movies like Driveways and Minari, with ventures such as the San Diego Asian Film Festival doing remarkable work curating voices from the diaspora. Maybe one day, there'll be more mainstream examples. A man can dream.