In all honesty, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about “Turning Red” at first. I’m an Asian American watching an Asian Pixar film, so the whole thing felt a little more important than your average “Cinderella” remake.
The story is about Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang, “Soiled”), a Chinese Canadian middle schooler living in Toronto. If you met Mei in real life, you would probably find her annoying. She’s an über-try-hard who raises her hand in class for every other question, gets straight As, obeys her parents to a T and attacks everything in life with the same single-minded, totally unapologetic drive for excellence. Despite this somewhat unappealing caricature, “Turning Red” portrays Mei with so much heart and earnestness that you can’t help but love her in all her enthusiasm. She has that frenetic energy combined with bouts of self-consciousness that’s a trademark of all middle school kids — and, of course, Mei’s just really dang cute. “Turning Red” somehow gives its protagonist all the Asian stereotypes without being disrespectful; she’s unique and three-dimensional, clearly her own person and not meant to be equated to an entire population. This, in and of itself, is a feat to be admired.
The plot begins when, one morning, Mei wakes up to find that she has turned into a giant, fluffy red panda (I know, so cute!). The panda turns out to be a hereditary gift passed down to all the women of the family. It comes out when Mei experiences strong emotions and is very much a blatant symbol of puberty. This has become somewhat of a controversial issue as some parents express concern over the appropriateness of discussing puberty in a children’s film — the movie includes talk about periods, and Mei draws cartoon fantasies about her crush. In this regard, “Turning Red” is the first of its kind: It provides a safe, kid-friendly avenue to start a conversation about the myriad of awkward middle school changes. That being said, I wouldn’t want to watch this movie with the kids I babysit — they can do that with their own parents.
The rest of the film follows Mei as she grapples with the consequences of her panda alter ego. As she navigates the different challenges and opportunities the panda creates, Mei is faced with a crucial choice: Either she can lock away her panda into some gem or token (as strongly promoted by her family, who have all done the same with their pandas), or she can keep the panda (which is what her friends at school want, as they love the “new Mei” who does what she wants and occasionally defies her parents).
Herein lies my main problem with “Turning Red”: There’s this whole tension between honoring your family and being your true self. And of course, the outcome of the film is utterly predictable — it’s an American film, after all. But I couldn’t help feeling like they did Asian culture a little dirty. Throughout the movie, Mei’s intense filial piety — a hallmark of Asian culture — is painted as something that’s holding her back. As I was typing these initial thoughts on my phone, I couldn’t help laughing at myself: On the spectrum of Korean American-ness, I’m definitely way more American than Korean, so why did I feel so defensive of a culture that I only partially understand, much less subscribe to?
But as I began to think it through, I realized that “Turning Red” isn’t nearly as offensive as my gut reaction implied. Mei herself embodies this very struggle I was feeling. She’s torn between the cultural norms of her family (honoring your elders, sacrificing for the good of the family) and the Western culture that she’s growing up in. The idea of “being true to yourself” is ubiquitous in Hollywood media. Western individualism is in the films we watch (this one included), the music we listen to and even the advertisements we see on TV. This tension is inevitable for every child of Asia who grows up in a Western nation. So rather than taking offense at this cultural friction and critically evaluating which culture is portrayed in a better light, I realized that the true miracle of “Turning Red” is in the aftermath of Mei’s decision about what to do with her panda.
Despite the reality of Mei diverging from the path that her mother, aunts, grandmother and ancestors have paved for her, the family demonstrates an incredible love and unconditional acceptance that transcends their inability to completely understand her decision. This cuts to the heart of what it means to live in a multicultural home. I can recall numerous instances in my life where I couldn’t understand why my parents reacted a certain way or why something I said offended them (or vice versa), and it’s only after some honest conversation that we were able to chalk it up to the culture gap between us. It’s strange how someone so close to you can, at times, think so differently. Nonetheless, it by no means diminishes the love and admiration I have for my parents. Lack of understanding doesn’t equate to a lack of love or respect, and “Turning Red” wonderfully captures this unconditional familial love and loyalty.
In fact, I would also argue that this isn’t just a second-generation Asian kid issue. This story applies to every gap in every family. Whether it be cultural, generational, religious or political, there’s something to be said about what a beautiful thing it is to love and respect someone despite your different beliefs or worldview. You don’t have to be a middle school girl from Toronto to appreciate that “Turning Red” is an important, universal story about the priceless value of unconditional acceptance.
Daily Arts Writer Pauline Kim can be reached at email@example.com.