Review: ‘Turning Red,’ starring the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee and Tristan Allerick Chen

March 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Abby (voiced by Hyein Park), Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse), Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) in “Turning Red” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Turning Red”

Directed by Domee Shi 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Toronto in 2002, the animated film “Turning Red” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, white and a few black people and Latinos) portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Due to an inherited family trait, a 13-year-old girl finds out that she can turn into a giant red panda when she gets very emotional, and she has to decide if she will keep or get rid of this family trait.

Culture Audience: “Turning Red” will appeal primarily to people interested in entertaining but somewhat predictable animated films that are stories about coming of age and about mother-daughter relationships.

Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) and Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) in “Turning Red” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

The comedic animated film “Turning Red” can at times get too one-note and formulaic in its themes of identity and self-discovery, but the movie has enough offbeat charm to make it a memorable coming-of-age story. The movie explores issues that are familiar to movies about children who are descendants of immigrants, such as whether to follow “old country” traditions or “current country” lifestyles. It’s a story that people of many generations and cultures can enjoy.

“Turning Red” is the feature-film debut of director Domee Shi, who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, for her 2018 film “Bao.” According to the “Turning Red” production notes, “Turning Red” (which was co-written by Shi and Julie Cho) is based on a lot of Shi’s real-life experiences as a Canadian child in a Chinese immigrant family. The story, which takes place in Toronto in the spring of 2002, is about a 13-year-old girl who finds her own identity, even when she has people telling her who she should be and what she should do.

The 13-year-old protagonist of “Turning Red” is Meiling “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a smart, obedient and admittedly dorky eighth grader at Lester B. Pearson Middle School in Toronto. Mei is the only child of domineering, overprotective mother Ming Lee (voiced by Sandra Oh) and laid-back and mild-mannered father Jin Lee (voiced by Orion Lee), who both moved to Canada before Mei was born. Ming is the boss of the Lee Family Temple, which is a tourist attraction in Toronto’s Chinatown district. Jin appears to be a stay-at-home father. Mei works part-time as an assistant temple keeper at the Lee Family Temple, where she does menial tasks such as cleaning.

Mei is a self-described overachiever who’s not very popular at school, but she has a tight-knit trio of friends who are students at the same school. Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse) is tomboyish and goofy. Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is bookish and sarcastic. Abby (voiced by Hyein Park) is feisty and hot-tempered. All four girls are somewhat obsessive fans of a boy band named 4*Town, which will be performing an upcoming concert at the Toronto SkyDome, a stadium that can seat 40,000 to 50,000 people. (In real life, the Toronto SkyDome name was changed to Rogers Centre in 2005.)

Because Ming is very strict and suspicious of anything that she thinks could lead Mei to rebel, she won’t let Mei go to the concert. Ming tells Mei that 4*Town’s inoffensive pop music is “filth.” It’s around this time that Mei finds out that the women in her family have inherited a trait where they turn into giant red pandas when they get emotional. When Mei is a panda, she’s about 8 feet tall. Mei discovers this family gene when she wakes up as a giant panda. And later, she predictably turns into a panda when she’s in school, which leads to a humiliating experience.

Mei’s parents tell her that the red panda trait can be suppressed/cured with an ancient ritual during the next red moon, which takes place the following month, on May 25. Meanwhile, Mei finds out that her schoolmates actually like when she transforms into Red Panda Mei, because she’s more spontaneous and fun-loving as a panda. And so, Mei and her three pals come up with a scheme to get enough money to go to the 4*Town concert, which will cost them $200 a ticket. The red panda ritual and the concert are part of a “race against time” aspect to this movie.

“Turning Red” infuses this somewhat simplistic comedic story with more complex commentary about generational traditions and mother-daughter relationships, especially toward the end of the film. Ming expects Mei to put family duties above Mei’s social life, which is why Mei doesn’t hang out with her friends after school as much as she would like to because Mei often has to work at the temple. “Turning Red” has many nods to Eastern culture (which puts emphasis on family/community) and Western culture (which puts emphasis on individuality), as well as the conflicts that can arise when someone, such as Mei, is caught between the contrasts of these cultures.

For example, Ming tells Mei that the red panda trait originated from an ancient female ancestor named Sun Yee, who was a warrior, scholar and poet at a time when women rarely had those roles. During a war, when most of the men were off fighting in the war, Sun Yee prayed to the gods to give her a way to defend her daughter and their village. The gods answered her prayer by giving her the ability to turn into a giant red panda. This ability was passed on to all of Sun Yee’s female descendants. This inherited trait could be considered a blessing for those who see it as good for a community, or it could be seen as a curse for those who see it as bad for an individual.

In the movie’s opening scene, Mei makes a comment that shows how she’s conflicted between the need to get the approval of her family (namely, her mother) and her need to be her own person who can make her own decisions. She says in a voiceover as a montage of her life flashes on screen: “The No. 1 rule in my family: Honor your parents … The least you can do is everything they ask. Honoring your parents is great, but if you take it too far, you might forget to honor yourself.”

Other parts of the movie repeat scenarios where Mei would like to think that she’s independent and free to do what she wants, but then something happens (usually involving Mei’s mother Ming) where Mei is made to feel guilty or pressured to do things that will make her parents proud and honor the family. Ming already has Mei’s life mapped out for her and expects Mei to have a career as secretary-general of the United Nations. Ming is also extremely judgmental and wants to control every aspect of Mei’s life.

For most of the movie, Ming is a caricature of a “helicopter mom,” who hovers and often interferes with Mei’s life to the extent that it causes a series of embarrassments for Mei. For example, when Mei wakes up one morning to find out that she has turned into a giant red panda, Mei is so confused and frightened, she won’t let her parents in her bedroom, but she wails through the door: “I’m a gross red monster!”

Ming misinterprets Mei’s “gross red monster” comment as Mei getting her menstrual period for the first time. That misunderstanding leads to a scene where Ming shows up unannounced at Mei’s school to deliver sanitary pads to her. Much to Mei’s understandable mortification, Ming gets into a fight with a security guard over it in front of Mei and her classmates, while Ming shouts that she just wants to deliver sanitary pads that Mei forgot at home. Of course, Ming eventually finds out the truth, and that’s when Mei’s parents tell Mei about their family’s red panda secret.

It isn’t until the last third of “Turning Red” that Ming stops being a caricature and starts being more of a fully developed character, as some of her human frailties and vulnerabilities emerge. This gradual reveal of Ming’s true character is one of the best aspects of “Turning Red,” which skillfully shows how physical appearances aren’t the only traits that can be passed down through generations. Parenting habits and the ways that parents teach children how to interact with others can also be inherited.

The movie falters a bit in how it introduces a few potential storylines for Mei’s peers, and then just lets those storylines dangle unresolved. There’s a 17-year-old boy named Devon (voiced by Addie Chandler), who’s a heartthrob to Mei, her friends and some of the other girls at Mei’s school. Devon works as a clerk at a convenience store called Daisy Mart. And when Ming finds that Mei has drawn some romantic (non-sexual) fantasy illustrations about Devon in Mei’s sketchbook/journal, Ming goes on a rampage by yelling Devon at his job and wrongfully accusing him of taking sexually advantage of Mei. And then, Devon and his storyline are completely dropped, as if his only purpose in the movie was to be a target of Ming’s misguided parental rants.

Ming also hugely disapproves of Mei’s friend Miriam, for reasons that aren’t made very clear and should have been given better explanation or context. The only explanation put forth in the movie is that Miriam, who likes to skateboard and is comfortable with herself, is perceived by Ming as a threat to Ming’s idea that Mei should be a prim and proper girl. Even though Miriam is a nice person and a supportive friend, Ming has this unsubstantiated idea that Miriam is a troublemaker who’s a bad influence on Mei. At one point in the movie, Miriam briefly mentions that Miriam’s parents aren’t very strict, which could be another reason why Ming doesn’t trust Miriam.

One of the biggest flaws of “Turning Red” is that Miriam, Priya and Abby are underdeveloped characters overall. The movie gives no sense of who these three friends are outside of any context of reacting to Mei’s emotions, offering to help Mei with any problems that she has, or discussing things that they have in common with Mei. Teenage girls talk to their close friends a lot about their personal hopes/goals and their families, but that kind of talk is very absent in this movie for Miriam, Priya and Abby. It makes Mei’s friendship with them look more one-sided than it should be.

Every movie with a school of underage children inevitably has a character who’s a school jerk/bully. In “Turning Red,” this character is Tyler (voiced by Tristan Allerick Chen), a spoiled and privileged kid, who likes to taunt Mei for being nerdy. Not much else is revealed about Tyler. That lack of information about Tyler is a missed opportunity for “Turning Red” to give better context for why school bullies like this exist and why they target certain people. The way that the movie handles the bully storyline is a little problematic, because it’s oversimplified and has a morally questionable message of buying friendships with cash, when the lesson should be that real friendships can’t be bought.

A montage near the beginning of the movie shows what a few people at the school think of Mei. A teacher says, “She’s a very enterprising, mildly annoying young lady.” A female student says that Mei is a “major weirdo.” A male student describes Mei as “an overachieving dork narc.” Mei is then seen commenting cheerfully, “I accept and embrace all labels.” Viewers of “Turning Red” are left to speculate, with nothing shown in the movie, why some students have such hostile feelings toward Mei that they would call her a “narc” (in other words, a snitch) and a “major weirdo.”

The music group 4*Town is meant to be a parody of boy bands that were popular in the early 2000s. The five members of the group—don’t ask why they’re called 4*Town, because there’s no explanation—also mirror the stereotypes of boy bands: One or two members of the group are the most popular heartthrob lead singers, while the other members are more forgettable and tend to fade in the background.

In 4*Town, the two most popular members are Robaire (voiced by Jordan Fisher) and Jesse (voiced by Finneas O’Connell), who overshadow the group’s other members: Tae Young (voiced by Grayson Villanueva), Aaron T. (voiced by Topher Ngo) and Aaron Z. (voiced by Josh Levi). All of the members of 4*Town are not in the movie long enough for them to show distinctive personalities, even though the group’s concert is at the center of the movie’s climactic action.

In real life, O’Connell is the Grammy-winning producer/songwriter who’s best known for his work with his younger sister, Billie Eilish. O’Connell and Eilish wrote three original 4*Town songs for the “Turning Red” soundtrack: “1 True Love,” “Nobody Like U” and “U Know What’s Up.” These songs are meant to sound “boy-band generic,” so don’t expect this music to win any prestigious awards. Ludwig Göransson (who won an Oscar and a Grammy for his 2018 “Black Panther” movie score) composed the musical score for “Turning Red,” which is a serviceable score but not Göransson’s best work.

All of the voice cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, while the visuals are very good but not exceptional. Many parts of the movie are predictable, but “Turning Red” is ultimately satisfying for anyone who can enjoy animated entertainment that hits all the expected notes when the protagonist is a plucky teenager.

Disney+ will premiere “Turning Red” on March 11, 2022, the same date that Disney will release the movie for a limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas.

Review: ‘First Cow,’ starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

John Magaro in “First Cow” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

“First Cow”

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Culture Representation: Set in early 19th century Oregon, the drama “First Cow” is about an unexpected friendship between a white cook and a Chinese immigrant in a community of white fur trappers, Native Americans and a few white noblemen.

Culture Clash: Conflicts arise between the “haves” and the “have-nots” when the movie’s main characters steal milk from a nobleman’s cow to start their own makeshift bakery business.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse Westerns that take their time to tell a story.

Orion Lee and John Magaro in “First Cow” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

Before seeing the Western drama “First Cow,” it helps to be familiar with the work of director Kelly Reichardt. Her previous credits as a movie writer/director include 2016’s “Certain Women,” 2013’s “Night Moves,” 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff” and 2008’s “Wendy and Lucy.” If you’ve seen any of these or her other movies, then you already know that she has a very deliberate pacing to her films, which take their time for people to get to know the main characters. Many of her movies utilize the power of silence to great effect, which is the opposite inclination of most of today’s films that try to fill up space with witty dialogue or high-octane action scenes.

In other words, if you think Westerns should be about gun battles and conquering frontiers, then “First Cow” is not the movie for you. Instead, the battles in this movie are more understated. They have to do with the everyday struggles that frontiersmen (this story is told entirely from the perspective of the male characters) experienced in the undeveloped territory of early 19th century Oregon. Even in the wild, wild West, they were still constrained by a social hierarchy.

The brief opening scene of the movie takes place in present-day Oregon, when a woman’s dog has dug up something unusual in a wooded area. The unnamed woman (played by Alia Shawkat) discovers that the dog has found two skeletons lying side by side, and one of them has its hand over the other’s hand. At the end of the movie, we find out how those people got there. There’s a quote from William Blake before the opening credits: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” It’s something to keep in mind as the story unfolds.

For the rest of the movie, viewers are transported back in time to 19th century Oregon, where quiet loner Otis “Cookie” Figowitz is traveling as a cook with a group of fur trappers, who are dressed like they’re at a Daniel Boone fan convention. One of the trappers is a Scotsman named Lloyd (played by Ewen Bremner), who’s a pragmatist for the group. Not much happens at first, as Cookie does mundane things, such eat yellow mushrooms that he finds in the woods.

But one night, Cookie encounter a naked Chinese man who’s hiding in the woods. The man says his name is King-Lu (played by Orion Lee) and that he’s very hungry. Cookie gives King-Lu a blanket and something to eat and drink. King-Lu then opens up that Russian men are chasing after him because he might have killed one of their men because they accused one of King-Lu’s friends of being a thief. King-Lu says he’s naked because he stashed his clothes in some trees as he was running away. King-Lu thanks Cookie for his help, and the two men go their separate ways.

Meanwhile, there’s an intriguing new arrival in the area. A well-built female cow has been delivered to local nobleman Chief Factor (played by Toby Jones). The animal is the talk of the community because it’s the first cow to live in the area. The cow is truly considered a luxury, but Chief Factor just keeps the cow tied up to show it off rather than to use the milk to help feed anyone.

Not long after the cow arrives, Cookie and King-Lu run into each other again at a local saloon. King-Lu, who says that the Russians left the area without finding him, invites Cookie back to his place to drink some more. It’s a very modest home (nothing more than a shack), but Cookie (who’s an orphan from Maryland) feels more comfortable here than he does with the fur trappers he’s been living with during his travels in Oregon.

As the two men develop a friendship, they decide to trespass at night on  Chief Factor’s property, where the cow is held, and secretly milk the cow, who is gentle and friendly. It leads to them to come up with the idea to make biscuits (called oily cakes) from the cow’s milk and to sell the biscuits to the local trappers.

The biscuits are a delicious, instant hit and they always sell out. Thus starts a pattern: Cookie and King-Lu both sneak onto the property at night. Cookie milks the cow, while King-Lu acts as a lookout. Cookie is the creative cook for the business, while King-Lu is the more entrepreneurial- minded partner who shrewdly thinks up ways to expand their business. He even imagines that they could make enough money to someday buy their own cow. However, Cookie is more hesitant, because he worries about how much longer they can continue to steal the cow’s milk without getting caught.

Their biscuits become so in-demand that their customers sometimes push each other out of the way to buy the food. King-Lu takes advantage of this frenzy by auctioning off the last biscuit to the highest bidder. When people ask what the biscuit’s ingredients are, King-Lu says, “Ancient Chinese secret.” Cookie becomes so attached to the cow that he begins talking to her while he milks her.

Even when the cow’s owner, Chief Factor, shows up to buy some biscuits, he doesn’t detect the taste of milk, and therefore he has no idea that his cow’s milk is being used to make the biscuits. Chief Factor is so impressed with Cookie’s baking skills (Cookie has previous training as a baker) that he hires him to make blueberry claufotis for a dinner party that he’s having.

Chief Factor also invites the two men to his home to present the claufotis to his main dinner guest: an out-of-town visitor called Captain (played by Scott Shepherd), a colleague who thinks that this rough area can’t possibly have sophisticated meals. But when Chief Factor takes Captain, Cookie and King-Lu out to the back of his property to show off the cow, Captain notices that the cow is acting a little to friendly to Cookie.

Riechardt co-wrote the “First Cow” screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, the author of the novel of the same time. There’s a level of authenticity that the movie conveys, because it shows that life in this wild frontier could be filled with stretches of tedium for unmarried, childless men who are focused on trying to make a living and possibly get rich.

It’s that possibility to reinvent themselves as potential wealthy entrepreneurs that keeps them motivated in this harsh environment where they aren’t living a traditional and comfortable life. But just like Gold Rush hopefuls getting blinded by impatient greed, there’s the possibility that Cookie and King-Lu could succumb to the same vice. The heart of the story is the friendship between these two men and whether or not it can survive materialistic temptations.

A24 Films released “First Cow” in select U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020.

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