Turning Red delivers a timely message by addressing a timeless subject

turn red

turn red
Photo: Disney/Pixar

Puberty can get a little, uh, hairy. In turn red, it turns 13-year-old Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) into a giant red panda, which doubles as a not-so-subtle metaphor for puberty in this Pixar allegory. The animated tale serves as practical fodder for story time, apparently intended to help parents of very young children explain in the abstract the physical and emotional changes one undergoes during this rite of passage.

Circa 2002, Meilin is a Chinese-Canadian girl: bespectacled, opinionated, overachieving and a musical instrument playing. She is raised in a traditional (i.e. not assimilated) Chinese house inside a temple with winged roofs, cherry blossoms adorning the yard, and a pond teeming with lotus flowers and carp. – a small shrine tucked away in Toronto’s Chinatown.

While her overbearing tiger mother archetype Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) worries about minor disruptions to Meilin’s schedule, her father Jin (voiced by Orion Lee) does the cooking and keeps the family in balance. At school, Meilin has his team of besties, who share his enthusiasm for boy band 4*Town.

When Meilin wakes up one morning to find she has turned into a a huge red panda, Ming rushes in with a large corrugated box containing ibuprofen, vitamins, a hot water bottle and a wide selection of sanitary napkins, assuming that Meilin’s collapse is caused by the arrival of her menstrual cycle.

Meilin discovers at short notice that she can return to her normal self via deep breathing and inner Zen, but eventually learns that the transformation is symptomatic of a hereditary condition in the females of her family that requires a ritual to exorcise.

Unfortunately, her family plans the ritual the night of the 4*Town performance at the famous Canadian venue SkyDome (now known as Rogers Centre), which presents Meilin with quite a dilemma.

contrary to At the top, which offers only limited details about its pint-sized Asian American protagonist Russell, this latest feature from Pixar is decidedly Asian. During the opening sequence, Meilin walks past a pastry shop, a roast duck restaurant, and a fresh produce vendor in Chinatown.

She and Ming watch a Hong Kong soap opera on TV. turn red is not just a posture of Orientalism, like Netflix’s Over the Moon; it is a real lived experience of the Chinese diaspora. Not only does the film pass the Bechdel test, it also scores high on the Harold & Kumar test. (Asians and tests! A heavenly match!)

Meanwhile, the SkyDome isn’t the film’s only Canuckian detail. Fools. French classes. Metropass TTC. Lester B. Pearson College Uniforms. Maple Leafs mascot Carlton the Bear sits on the math teacher’s bookshelf. Never have Canadians been so seen in a Hollywood film; it almost feels fan-servicey. Director and co-writer Domee Shi, who also directed Pixar’s Oscar-winning short Baois unmistakably a Canuck, and she’ll let you know.

Meilin’s best friends include Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an Indo-Canadian, and Abby (voiced by Hyein Park), a Korean-Canadian. The film does not present them as monolithic, ethnically or personality-wise. Their school resource officer wears a turban, a nod to the Punjabi Sikhs living in Canada. A few women in the background are wearing headscarves. Although the movie doesn’t exactly surface a South Asian character as beloved as Anupam Tripathi’s Ali Abdul in squid gamewe are far from the complete obliteration committed by boobies rich asian.

At a time when Asian women in North America have endured so much hate and trauma, turn red is a little respite that celebrates them as well as their culture, their resilience, their intelligence, their perfectionism, their insecurities, their anxieties, their eccentricity, their passion, their ingenuity, their fraternity, their love of food, etc. We all need a little comfort from time to time to stay true to ourselves, and turn red speaks directly to generations of Diaspora Asian women when they most need to hear this.

Jessica C. Bell