'Turning Red' director Domee Shi channeled her inner panda to tell a story about adolescence
Pixar’s new film “Turning Red” is about a bespectacled Chinese Canadian teen heroine named Meilin, Mei for short.
Mei aces school, has a great group of friends and is close to her parents. But her confidence is shattered one morning when she wakes up and discovers that her life has become panda-monium.
Looking in the mirror, Mei discovers “she’s transformed into a giant hairy, red, smelly panda — as we all do when we’re at that age,” says director and co-writer Domee Shi. Shi also wrote and directed the Oscar-winning 2018 short film “Bao.”
Mei hides in the bathroom from her mom, who thinks her daughter has her period for the first time. But instead, Mei turns into an 8-foot panda when she gets emotional — a metaphor for “magical puberty,” Shi says.
“When I came up with the idea, it was just this hilarious image in my head of this girl that loses control and just poofs into this giant, red, hairy, hormonal animal,” she says. “This is just a time in all of our lives we just want to forget about. But it just was so juicy and tempting to just go back and revisit it in this weird and quirky way.”
The black and white panda has been done before in movies, Shi says, but not many people in the west know what a red panda is. The animal’s red color symbolizes menstruation, anger, embarrassment and lust.
Of the three teen girl coming-of-age stories Shi pitched to Pixar in 2017, the animation studio was drawn to her magical puberty idea because it made everyone cringe.
“It was such a specific story,” she says, “but it was also so universal that we’ve all been there that they couldn’t resist picking it up.”
The conflict between Mei and her mom stews: Her mom is upset to find a B- assignment under her bed. Her favorite boy band is coming to Toronto but she can’t see them because of her strict Asian parents.
Shi grew up in Toronto, where the film is based, and the conflict comes from her own upbringing. In “Turning Red,” she wanted to celebrate that period of her life and explore it from every angle.
“I went from being that perfect little daughter to overnight changing into this wild hairy hormonal animal who was like fighting with her mom all the time,” she says. “Making this movie, I just wanted to understand like what was going on, not just from my point of view, but from my mom’s point of view as well.”
Mei’s mom, voiced by Sandra Oh, worries about the panda problem — one she and her mom also experienced. The panda also represents intergenerational trauma and how each generation deals with it, Shi says.
“Turning Red” features some anime moments, like when Mei’s eyes expand with sparkles and stars upon seeing her favorite boy band or a boy she likes. Shi says she wanted the animation to reflect how a tween Asian girl sees the world. At Mei’s age, Shi was watching “Sailor Moon” and getting inspired by anime.
“[Anime] just felt like the perfect style to kind of bring this girl’s emotions to life,” she says, “because anime is so colorful and expressive and fun, and that all just feels like Mei.”
Shi was born in Chongqing, China, not far from where red pandas live, and emigrated with her parents to Canada when she was 2.
Her family didn’t have much money, but one day her dad brought home a VCR and a copy of Disney’s “Aladdin.” That’s where her relationship with animation began.
“I remember watching it, repeatedly rewinding it and just pausing it and just being so amazed at how these drawings could feel so real and expressive,” she says. “And also, I was like confused as to why I thought Aladdin was so hot.”
After winning an Oscar for “Bao,” Shi went on to become the first woman to direct a short film for Pixar. Shi says she felt a lot of pressure, in part because of her Asian upbringing.
With “Bao,” she only had eight minutes to tell a parent-child story. “Turning Red” gave her 90 minutes to dive deep into the complexity of the dynamic between Asian mothers and daughters — the closeness, fighting, guilt, mind games, manipulation and love.
For Shi, it’s an exciting time to be in animation. Pixar supported her in telling a story based on her own life, she says.
“We are redefining what universal stories look and feel like, no longer do they have to be, I think, portrayed by like one group of people,” she says. “I think we can all kind of identify with Mei and her struggle with growing up and with her mom.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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