(Spoiler alert: The ending of this Chinese Canadian coming-of-age story is revealed.)
My mom was an immigrant from Hong Kong, and I, her American first-born. She was a deeply devoted mother who sewed costumes for my grade school plays and spent hours each week ferrying me home from after-school activities at my high school across town. But in her way of wanting what was best for me, she was also overprotective and proscriptive. A worst-case scenario thinker, she countered my requests with an imagination of doom. Once in middle school, when I asked if I could go to the mall with my friends, her answer was not only “no,” but “What are you going to do if there’s a bomb?!”
With a flush of recognition, I saw my family in the Disney/Pixar film Turning Red, which opens with 13-year-old Meilin Lee confidently introducing herself to the audience. Wearing round glasses and a backpack with a Tamagotchi strapped to it, she walks down the street with her flute case in hand while declaring, “The number one rule in my family: Honor your parents. They’re the supreme beings who gave you life … The least you can do in return is every single thing they ask.” At school, she makes A’s. After school, she heads home to Chinatown to help her mom Ming run the family temple. She is the perfect, dutiful daughter.
But everything gets complicated after Ming embarrasses Mei in front of the boy she likes: She wakes up the next day to discover that she has turned into a giant fluffy red panda. Whenever she’s overcome with emotion, she poofs into the panda, then reverts to human form when she calms down.
Turning Red is a coming-of-age tale about trying to live in a newly changing body and figuring out who you are. It is also about the complicated relationship between Asian girls and their mothers. Director Domee Shi, who is Chinese Canadian, based the story on her own childhood. (She is an expert at fanciful conceits about intense mothers, having also directed the 2018 Oscar-winning short film Bao, which is about a lonely mom with empty nest syndrome who wills a steamed bun to life and raises it as her child.)
Scenes in the beginning of the film, set in early-2000s Toronto, establish that Mei and her mother are close. When Mei hurries home after school to help Ming sweep the temple and give tours, she genuinely enjoys her duties. She clearly loves her mom and wants to honor her.
But Mei also feels the pressures that children in immigrant families often face, pressures that especially weigh on daughters. In a scene that articulates this, Mei scolds herself in front of a mirror. “You are her pride and joy, so act like it!” The posters in Mei’s room state what’s expected of her: “Study. Work. Listen.”
Mei begins to deviate from the path that Ming has laid out for her as her budding sense of self clashes with her mom’s smothering parenting style. Ming regards Mei’s interests outside of the home — her friends, crushes on an older boy, and obsession with the boy band 4*Town — as contaminating influences. When Mei asks to attend a 4*Town concert, Ming’s answer is ‘absolutely not.’
When you have a mother who sees you as an extension of herself, who has high expectations for you to achieve in ways that she could not, you are bound to disappoint. Turning Red captures the harm caused from grappling with that disappointment but also the hilarity inherent in such intense modes of mothering.
Ming’s behavior — spying on Mei from behind a tree outside her classroom, marching into the convenience store where Mei’s crush works to confront the unsuspecting boy after she discovers Mei’s drawings of him in her notebook — are ridiculous overreactions. To me, they’re also instantly recognizable.
My mom was also hypervigilant. When I was little, she warned me to stay close to her whenever we went out in public lest a kidnapper snatch me. I was especially attractive to kidnappers, she said, because Chinese kids were not common in our area, so I would fetch more on the black market.
As I grew older, my teen years were fiery ones filled with arguments as I ran afoul of mom’s notions of who I should be and how I should behave. Like Ming, my mom regarded family as everything. Like Mei, I wanted both independence and acceptance from my mom.
As Mei struggles in her new red panda form, she learns that generations of women in her family have, too. Ming tells her that “this little quirk runs in our family,” through the women. An ancestor, Sun Yee, was the first to change into a panda during wartime in order to protect her daughters and their village. That no one warned Mei and kept it a secret from her strikes me as a rather diasporic experience. On the one hand our families want us to learn our traditions and cultures. On the other hand, they don’t speak of the past, especially of traumas they may have endured.
Tellingly, it is after the family migrated to Canada that this power became “inconvenient,” as Ming describes it — a metaphor for acculturation. But don’t worry, Ming tells Mei. There is a cure. A ritual performed under a lunar eclipse can seal the panda spirit into an amulet.
At first Mei feels like a freak, a monster. But her friends embrace this new side of her. And in the month leading up to the ritual, Mei does too. When it comes time for the ritual, she can’t go through with it. Mei flees the family temple in panda form as her whole family — her mother, father, grandma, and aunties — try to pull her back in. They believe it is dangerous to go out in the world as a panda and want to protect her.
But Mei heads straight to the 4*Town concert. This disobedience enrages Ming, who unleashes her own Godzilla-like red panda and goes after Mei. As mother and daughter confront each other, we learn that in her adolescence, Ming also carried the burden of being the perfect daughter. Her own red panda rage harmed her relationship with her mother. Now, in her attempts to keep her daughter close and safe, Ming is pushing Mei away. To break the cycle of intergenerational pain, the mother must let go of her controlling ways — for her daughter’s sake and her own.
In the end, Mei’s grandma and aunties unlock their panda spirits to help Ming, who has been knocked unconscious. They undergo the ritual themselves, giving up their pandas again. Only Mei chooses to keep hers. When she does, her ancestor Sun Yee appears, and they both turn into their pandas and soar into the sky.
What does it say that Mei is the first one in many generations to accept and live with her panda? Is it that she is true to herself? Or that those who came before paved the way for her? In an interview with Vanity Fair, Shi explains. It was important to make Mei the first to accept her panda to show how the younger generation embraces the flaws and messiness that the older generation, by virtue of survival, had to hide.
Embrace your panda — the weird, emotional, creative, messy parts of you —Turning Red tells us. By being true to ourselves and not holding back for anyone, we are fulfilling our ancestors’ wildest dreams.
Melissa Hung is a journalist who writes about culture and immigrant communities.
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