‘Turning Red’ Director Domee Shi Had ‘Teen Asian Fever Dream’ About Puberty

Being a 13-year-old girl going through puberty can be a nightmare: What’s going on with my body? Why do I feel like I’m going to explode? What are periods? Wait, does that happen every month? !

“Turning Red” by director Domee Shi, presented Friday on Disney+, unafraid of the pain, horror and confusion of adolescence – but delightfully embodies it in a fuzzy animated panda. The film’s protagonist, Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), is a 13-year-old teenager growing up in Toronto. One morning, she wakes up, looks in the mirror and discovers that she has her turn.turned into a red panda. Shocked and mortified, she stumbles into her room and just wants to hide.

Meilin soon learns that her transformation is considered a rite of passage for generations of women in her family. Whenever she experiences strong emotions – including many inopportune moments – she transforms into a red panda.

“It was just something about the red panda that was the perfect animal metaphor for puberty. I couldn’t think of any other naturally red animal other than the red panda,” Shi told HuffPost. so cute.”

In 2019, the Chinese-Canadian director won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film — becoming the first woman of color to do so — for her sweet and touching Pixar short, “Bao.” Today, Shi is making her directorial debut with “Turning Red,” the animation studio’s first feature film directed by a solo female director. Throughout the film, Shi’s creative vision really shines through – from the animation techniques, which combined Pixar and Japanese anime, to the cultural and geographic details of his childhood.

Like the protagonist of her film, Shi grew up in Toronto in the early 2000s. The idea for “Turning Red” and the image of the red panda “came from me wanting to make a film for this 13-year-old Domee who was struggling with his body and his emotions and fought with his mother every day and wanted to understand what was going on at the time, but in a fun, unique and magical way,” Shi said.

Shi attends the film’s London premiere in February.

David M. Benett via Getty Images

The director said she incorporated many everyday elements from her own past into the film.

“One of my favorite scenes is near the beginning of the movie, where Mei is just making dumplings with her mother, and they are watching Cantonese soap operas on TV. And her father is just stirring in the background” , said Shi. “It’s a typical scene straight out of my own childhood that I thought was so cool that we could bring a big budget movie to life, just so we could celebrate dumplings and Cantonese soaps and dads who are tough cooks.”

Much of the film is about the relationship between Mei and her mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh). Like many kids her age, Mei wants to have agency and be independent. But IIn creating the close bond between mother and daughter, Shi said she wanted to avoid a more stereotypical story structure in which a rebellious child tries to break free from an overbearing parent.

“For this story, I wanted to make it clear from the start: Mei really loves her family and really enjoys spending time with her mother,” Shi said. “They’re super, super close, and she doesn’t like that she’s away from her parents and that growing up in a Western society takes her away from her family back home.”

“It’s more of a nuanced struggle for her,” she continued. “It’s precisely, I think, a struggle that a lot of immigrant kids, a lot of Asian kids face, that I thought was important to put in the film.”

Lee, the main character of "become red," and his mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh).
Lee, the main character of “Turning Red”, and his mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh).

Another characteristic that gives “Turning Red” its specificity is the time period. Set in 2002, the film contains an abundance of early 2000s references: flip phones, camcorders, Tamagotchis, the song “Cha Cha Slide” and boy bands.

“It really feels like we’re taking you back in time, to the 2000s, to that tween Asian fever dream,” Shi said.

In one of the film’s subplots, Mei and her best friends Miriam, Abby, and Priya (voiced by Ava Morse, Hyein Park, and “Never Have I Ever” star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan respectively) must figure out how to earn enough. money to see their favorite boy band, 4*Town (which, as Mei’s mom points out, inexplicably has five members). Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell wrote the fictional band’s original songs, which really sound like they’re straight out of a Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync album. The film also includes several fantastic needle drops of actual songs, such as a scene featuring “Bootylicious” from Destiny Child, which will likely take any kid back to the 1990s or early 2000s to that era.

“I love all the music from the early 2000s, and it was so cool to be able to incorporate that into the film,” Shi said. And this song [“Bootylicious”], too, I think, is perfect. If you’re listening to the lyrics, it’s about embracing all the restless and raunchy sides of yourself. And Mei is also embracing that part of herself right now.

In "become red," Meilin's friends try to console her when she transforms into a red panda.
In “Turning Red”, Meilin’s friends try to console her when she turns into a red panda.

After studying animation at university, Shi landed an internship at Pixar in 2011 and been there since. She rose through the ranks as a story artist on films such as “Inside Out”, “Toy Story 4” and “Incredibles 2”. While working on “Inside Out”, she came up with an idea for a short film, which became “Bao”. One of the biggest challenges of directing a feature film as opposed to a short film, she said, was “understanding how chaotic directing a feature film can be and how, at at some point, you’re working on every step of the film at the same time.”

“You’re approving plans for animation, but at the same time, you’re back in the script to address the notes you’ve received from executives. At the same time, you look at the lighting. And it all happens at the same time on any given day,” Shi said. In contrast, the production process for “Bao” was largely in order. So it was really difficult for me mentally, to go back and forth in time and work on different parts of the film as everything fell into place.

For Shi, one of the gifts of working in animation is being able to think more imaginatively about how to capture the mess of life, including things like puberty and periods.

“When it happens to you at that time, it’s so nightmarish, awkward and embarrassing. But now that there’s some distance between me and me at 13, I can look back and laugh about it. I can analyze it from every angle,” Shi said. “And that’s also the beauty of animation. Animation allows you to explore complex, deep or traumatic or gritty subjects, but in an accessible, visual way. and creative.

“Turning Red” premieres Friday on Disney+.


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