Some reflections on the movie ‘Turning Red’

March 24, 2022 11:44
Photo: Disney+

The other day I tuned into my Disney+ and opted to watch ‘Turning Red’, a joint effort by Pixar Animation Studios (producer) and Walt Disney (distributor). Directed by Domee Shi (of Bao (2018) fame), the film was a touching and very much needed feel-good tribute to the experience of being Canadian-Chinese (more specifically -Cantonese).

‘Turning Red’ tells the story of a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian, Meilin ‘Mei’ Lee, who resides in Toronto with her parents. Her mother, Ming, is a strict and overbearing ‘tiger mother’ whose conception of parenthood is as draconian as one would expect from, well, Asian parents. Her husband, on the other hand, is a meek and docile partner – an apt nod to the welcome subversion of gender tropes in our contemporary era, and a reminder that norms of masculinity/femininity, of aggression/passivity, should not be bound to particular genders.

As the film progresses, two undercurrents emerge and surface – the first, is that Mei turns into a red panda whenever she feels stressed (hence the eponymous); the second, is that Mei must seek to navigate and balance between her inner insecurities and struggles, her fraught relations with her mother, her reckoning with the typical intrigue and growing pains of a teenage girl, and the moral-normative implications of her being a daughter to a traditional Chinese family, as a migrant family to Canada.

One would be excused for thinking that it’d be rather difficult for someone like me, a born-and-bred Hongkonger, to relate to the thirteen-year-old protagonist. Fair comment. Yet also one that misses the point almost entirely.

‘Turning Red’ is an emphatic, powerful, at times poignant comedy that engages with sensitive and delicate issues with care and aplomb. It is not averse to confronting and exposing the problems that adolescent girls often face – ranging from questions of body-positivity/-negativity, to relations and budding romance, to the fangirl and ‘stan’ culture that undergirds how teenaged girls interact with pop idols. It would be a shame if these issues were treated as if they were taboo – yet alas, that has indeed been the predominant modus operandi when it comes to how news media, even in more ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ countries, have conventionally addressed such questions. Fortunately, ‘Turning Red’ turns the questions at stake here upside down, through casting them under such an even-handed and empathetic light that one could be excused for viewing the film as perfect teaching material (albeit not as factually accurate material, of course) for PSHE lessons and beyond, in high school.

We do not live to please, the movie insists; we live to liberate ourselves from the shackles of gender, ethnocentric, and religious stereotypes. Cynics may accuse this movie of propagating American liberalism, and/or heretic opposition to much-cherished family values; yet such criticisms would be rather unfair – in stripping the juxtaposition between freedom and subjugation down to a monolithic bifurcation between American and non-American cultures, such criticisms are fundamentally misinformed. The migrant experience is one that is influenced and shaped through the confluence of dynamic, interactive forces. To be Canadian-Chinese, is distinct from being ‘Chinese-Chinese’ (born and raised in China), but also from being Caucasian-Canadian – not because the differences across such categories are inherently or definitionally important (I am no essentialist in that sense), but because the labels and categorisation applied to us, into which we may or may not opt, also come to shape how we imagine ourselves, how we organise ourselves, and how we relate to the big other in the society we inhabit (for a more detailed exposition of the big other, see Slavok Zizek’s ‘How to read Lacan’). If the migrant experience is indeed a melting pot, why must we eschew its complexity in favour of ethnocentric essentialisms that are neither empirically accurate nor normatively warranted?

The movie takes us down a joyous trip of the zeitgeist and ‘down-low’ of Third Culture Kids (even though the movie was technically set twenty years back, in the early 2000s – with clear references to then-favourites such as *NSYNC and Back Street Boys). I thought the music was absolutely terrific – especially the tunes produced by the fictional boy-band featured in the movie, with apparent tributes paid to K-Pop culture and ‘stan’ culture inspired by the increasing proliferation of social media platforms, and the lowering of the average of users who come to engage with such contents. Indeed, back when I started off using Meta’s services as a kid, Facebook was “the” platform to be on, and there was no such thing as Instagram or Snapchat. How times have changed since…

Yet in any case, for parents hoping to understand the anxieties and self-doubts of children eager to grow up yet equally eager to remain young forever, this is the movie to watch. For those who find themselves starved of folks to relate to in Pixar/Disney offerings (even though “Inside Out” and “Soul” were brilliant, they were nevertheless by no means targeted towards, distinctively, the Asian migrant’s experience in Western liberal democracies), fret not – this is your answer. At a time when anti-Asian hate crimes are on a rise, and where the loyalty of migrants residing in the US, Canada, the UK and beyond, is called into question by McCarthyist populism on one hand, and nationalistic attempts at cooptation on the other hand, ‘Turning Red’ is a triumphant and powerful rebuking of all those who refuse to acknowledge and embrace the heterogeneity and uniqueness of the migrant experience.

Migrants belong. They belong even if you don’t think they do. And guess what – it is the words and thoughts of those who experience their culture and cultural transformations first-hand, who ought to matter. Not those of cynical, unsympathetic strangers – whether it be those who subscribe to conservative tenets produced by the patriarchy, the ageist patronisation underpinning ‘tiger parenting’, or, indeed, those in the West who view all who look different, as the “Other”. They are not the Other; we are not the Other.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review