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Guest Column: ‘Turning Red’ Writer-Director Domee Shi on Making Her “Magical Puberty Story”



In living rooms around the world, a war is raging between two formidable foes: parents and tweens. Eyes roll. Voices rise. Arguments explode. “You’re not wearing that!” “You call this music?” “You just don’t get it!” The two sides, once close, suddenly feel like they’re speaking a foreign language to each other.

We’ve all felt the dreaded effects of puberty, but not often do we get to examine what’s under the hood, especially through the lens of the female experience. For me, everything changed in my relationship with my mom when I was a teenager. She went from being my best friend to my nemesis. Why and how did that happen? Those questions always burned in the back of my mind, and for some reason the only way I could find the answers was through making films. It isn’t so much that art imitates life as it is that art helps you to understand life. And I really wanted to understand my mother and myself more.

When I was growing up in Toronto in the early aughts, I had a lot of emotions towards my mom. She was both a powerful goddess whom I looked up to and feared disappointing and my prison warden who wouldn’t let me do anything fun and exciting. In Turning Red, we wanted Mei’s inner conflict to reflect the very real and nuanced relationships that a lot of immigrant kids have with their parents. She genuinely loves spending time with her mom making dumplings and watching soaps, but she’s also turning into a wild, uninhibited, hormonal creature her mom doesn’t recognize. How does she honor her parents and herself at the same time? The answer lies somewhere in the middle, but that means having to say goodbye to the tight relationship they once had.

As with many Asian and immigrant families, emotions were always felt through action, not direct words. My mom didn’t say, “I love you,” but she always showed her love through food, fussing over me, encouraging and mentoring my drawing and writing. And in the same way, I think I needed to understand her love through action — creating fictional characters and fantastical scenarios and watching them play out onscreen.

The idea for my 2018 animated short Bao came from trying to understand and empathize with my mom as an empty-nester. She’d often say to me, “I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew where you were at all times.” I always thought that was so sweet but so creepy, and I wanted to dig deeper into why we cling possessively to our loved ones and inadvertently — and unknowingly — hurt them. Of course, I realized after making the film that I still had a lot to unpack in our relationship (the short film was only eight minutes!), so if I was going to make a feature film, I specifically wanted to revisit that key moment. in my life when my mother and I really started being more at odds: tweenhood.

And so I did Turning Red, my attempt to make a feature film for my 13-year-old self going through the ups and downs of growing up. I wanted to tell her it’s perfectly normal to feel like a raging hormonal beast sometimes, to be angry at your mom, to be silly, horny, messy… It’s all OK!

Ming and Mei (voiced by Sandra Oh and Rosalie Chiang, respectively) in Disney/Pixar's Turning Red.

Ming and Mei (voiced by Sandra Oh and Rosalie Chiang, respectively) in Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red.

Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

I am constantly reminded that animation is such a powerful and immersive tool. It helps us process complex topics that might be too harsh or raw to digest through live-action filmmaking. It’s a universal language that reaches people of all ages. It might be hard to talk about puberty or growing apart or intergenerational trauma with members of your family, but it’s easy to sit down and watch an animated film and feel those everyday, human emotions together.

Of course, my mother is not a giant red panda raging through the city, crushing cars and terrorizing the hottest boy band in the world. And I don’t have control over my emotions all the time, either — my inner panda still comes out at many inopportune moments. But my love of drawing let me figure these feelings out in a fun and constructive way. And as an extension, directing an animated film let me play with some very cool and expensive computers to tell my magical puberty story so that others can learn a little about themselves and their parents, too. And after watching Turning Redmaybe other viewers won’t let those tween years get to any of us so much — because despite how much they shaped us, they don’t really last all that long, do they?

This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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