Turning Red, by Albert W. Vogt III

I was a little disappointed that Turning Red did not play in any theater near me.  It worked out well with my schedule for the weekend, but I do love going to the cinema.  I have documented this elsewhere, and honestly, I could have made it work.  I was surprised, too, to not see it among the offerings this weekend.  Instead, there were horror films that I would rather avoid, and others I have already seen.  So, why not put Turning Red out in theaters instead of just releasing it on streaming?  I have no good answers for you.  I saw the preview several times for a while, but then no theatrical release?  Puzzling.  What is less of a head-scratcher is what is going on in the film.  Unintentionally or not, the entire movie is a metaphor for, well . . . I will let you infer what you like from the description below.

The star of Turning Red is the thirteen-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang).  She lives in Toronto, and she is what kids these days might call “extra.”  She is an over-achiever, and proud of whatever labels people give her.  Brainiac, friendly, overtly extraverted, musically inclined, her and her three friends are above any sort of petty aspersions their peers, or anyone, might cast upon them.  Mei also has a foot planted firmly in two worlds.  While her friends, Miriam (Ava Rose), the voice of reason; Abby (Hyein Park), the loud one; and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), the chill one, are all close in their bond and interests, they are not her Chinese family.  Mei has a great relationship with her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), and together they take care of their family’s temple, cleaning it and giving tours to people interested in their ancestral legend of a mother turning into a red panda to defend her village.  Ming also does not approve of Mei’s friends, thinking that they are a bad influence.  This comes to the fore when a Ming notes a keen interest in a boy band known as 4*Town, of which mom also disapproves, and blames Miriam, Abby, and Priya for stoking this nonsense.  This is not all that Ming notices, and when she finds a number of random scribblings in Mei’s notebook of her and the local convenience store clerk they all have the hots for, she confronts the boy with Mei in tow.  Making matters worse is the fact that this embarrassing scene is witnessed by Mei’s one rival at school, Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen).  Later that night, while trying to sleep with a number of swirling emotions going on inside her, she dreams of shirtless members of 4*Town turning into mermen (for some reason), and has visions of giant red pandas.  When she awakens, she is a giant red panda, though she does not notice it until she makes it into the bathroom.  At first, she manages to hide it from her mother, despite loudly freaking out, and is able to realize that the key to her transformation are emotions.  Yet, when she gets to school and sees that Tyler has plastered the hallway with posters of her mom’s convenience store outburst, she transforms back into the creature.  Luckily, she manages to (mostly) avoid detection, and attempts to carry on with class.  This is derailed when Ming is caught outside her class, spying on her daughter out of worry.  When a cloud of pink smoke bursts out as Mei changes back into the panda, Ming knows what is happening.  She follows Mei back home after her daughter runs out of the school, and explains that all the females in their family have had this issue.  Yet, there is a way to control it, and Ming indicates how her panda spirit is contained in an amulet she wears around her neck.  The ceremony for making this happen and allowing Mei to return to some semblance of normalcy will take place at the next red moon, which is in a month, and she must remain isolated until that time.  This does not work for Mei because she and her friends had been plotting to go to the 4*Town concert, which is supposed to happen in a couple weeks.  What convinces Mei’s parents to let her outside of the house is her seeming new ability to master her emotions.  The last thing they want is for an incident with the panda, which they view as dangerous.  Thus, Mei is able to return to school and resume her plans with her friends to see their favorite band live.  The one problem in their mind is money, but they realize they have a money maker in Mei’s “condition.”  Word gets around that Mei has her ability, and those at the school pay for pictures with the panda, buy t-shirts and mugs with its image, and Tyler even puts up the funds for the creature to show up at his upcoming birthday party.  Unfortunately, Ming does not allow Mei to go to the concert.  Further, thanks to some misreading on Abby’s part, they discover that the concert is the same night as the ceremony to return Mei to normal.  During said ritual, however, Mei decides, against the advice of not only her parents, but also her grandma Wu (Wai Ching Ho) and all her aunts, to keep the panda.  She then runs away from the temple to join her friends at the arena where 4*Town is playing.  This is the last straw for Ming, her breaks her amulet and releases her own panda . . . who is a stories-tall monster!  Ming then stomps to the arena to collect her daughter, followed by the rest of her anxious family.  The only way of stopping the madness is by hastily improvising the ritual at the arena, which they need to do before the red moon goes away.  Inside the dreamscape triggered by the ceremony, Mei and Ming have a moment and mom comes to accept that daughter is going to keep her gift.  They then return to a new normal, which apparently also means helping to pay for rebuilding the arena.  But at least Mei’s friends are now welcome in the Lee household.

Did you guess what the metaphor is in Turning Red?  If not, I will come out and say it: puberty.  Of course, this happens a little differently for girls than it does for boys, but I will leave that thought unfinished.  I hope you can sense the one thing I am trying my best to skirt.  It has nothing to do with any squeamishness on my part.  I am perfectly comfortable discussing such things in a private setting.  Professionally, or at least as professional as The Legionnaire can be, I try to be circumspect and polite.  By the way, that is a personal choice.  The Catholic Church is plenty open about such issues.  At any rate, I feel my tone is the right given the way the film handles the subject.  It can be an embarrassing subject for young girls, and that seems to be the way Mei feels about it.  Ming does not help the situation.  At first, she believes it is what every girl experiences on their way to womanhood, and brings all the appropriate essentials to Mei at the wrong times, like when she is in the middle of class.  At the same time, if you substitute the red panda for the words I have yet to say, then you kind of get the same idea.  As such, I commend the movie.  I am not sure girls would like to think of their time of the month as a fluffy creature, but Disney handles a sensitive subject with its usual artistry and verve.

There are other beautiful themes in Turning Red that appeal to this Catholic reviewer.  One of the most prominent is perfection.  This is a pressure that Mei feels from her mom, and Ming once felt from Wu.  The red panda comes around the time when puberty starts, and it is propped up as a symbol of rebellion, hence why Ming and Wu see it as dangerous.  It is around this time that the close bonds between daughter and mother begin to break down.  Instead of seeing it as a problem in the relationship, they blame it on the panda, bottling it in some trinket and never dealing with the issue.  Meanwhile, the relationship between the two continues to deteriorate until there is genuine resentment.  In my role as a spiritual director and youth minister, I have seen this process play out in people’s interactions with God.  They see God as all good, and themselves as all bad.  Put differently, they see God as placing an unfair standard on them, when all they want to do is give in to their desires.  The more they indulge, be it sin or, according to the logic of the parents in the film, become the panda, the more it dominates their lives until there is no turning back.  With Faith, there is always a pathway to return.  God never turns His back on us.  Sin does not have the final say in our lives, no matter what we might imagine to be the truth.  The film offers a neat solution to this situation as well.  Our three generations of Lee women all realize they must live their lives without constantly bowing to the expectations of others.  At the same time, they honor their traditions.  Our God is a tolerant God, though there is a limit.  Faith provides a framework for us to live our lives with the understanding that God is there for us, and that we should have a relationship with Him.  In many respects, this thinking guided my decision to start The Legionnaire.

So, yeah, I enjoyed Turning Red, for the most part.  It had its moments of mild humor, and much of this is used to treat a tricky subject.  I am sure parents will appreciate this if they have daughters of the same age.  Either way, I leave it to them to handle it as they see fit.  At least they will not have to deal with an extra-large animal shedding red fur all over the place?

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