How boy band mania inspired animated comedy Turning Red

Turning Red premieres on Disney+ on March 11. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

SINGAPORE - In Pixar animated comedy Turning Red, director and co-writer Domee Shi mocks her teen self mercilessly.

Turning Red's main character Mei suffers a series of humiliating setbacks. Some of them are caused by her own hubris, but her zealously protective mother is also at fault.

Two decades later, the memories still carry a sting, says Shi.

"I did wonder, 'Why did I decide to tell this story?' These are memories I wanted to forget," the Chinese-Canadian film-maker tells The Straits Times in an online interview.

Those moments of cheek-burning humiliation turned out to be storytelling gold.

"Yeah, there are a lot of cringey moments. But that's what makes them entertaining and fun," says Shi, 34.

"They just feel so visceral, and everyone has memories of being super embarrassed by their parents."

Turning Red premieres on Disney+ on March 11.

Set in early 2000s Toronto, the loosely autobiographical film tells the story of 13-year-old Mei Lee (voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang). The only child of Chinese immigrant parents is a straight-A student with a secret: She is obsessed with the boy band 4*Town, pronounced Four Town.

She and her friends yearn to see them perform in her city, but her mother Ming (Korean-Canadian actress Sandra Oh) is appalled by the band's sexy image.

In an incident which happened to Shi, Mei's mother sneaks around the school, trying to discover which of Mei's friends is leading her astray.

And just as it is shown in the film, after the snooping mum is spotted, her child becomes the school's laughing stock.

"My friend tapped my shoulder and asked, 'Who's that strange lady hiding behind the tree?' I look up, and it's my mum. She thought if she put sunglasses on, I wouldn't recognise her, as if she were Clark Kent," says Shi.

The film's title refers to the rush of blood to the cheeks when one's mother commits a monstrous gaffe in public, notes Shi. It also refers to how when Mei is under stress, she magically transforms into a giant red panda.

The film-maker was born in Chongqing, China, before moving with her parents to Canada at the age of two. She learnt to appreciate drawing from her father, a fine arts professor and painter.

Starting at animation studio Pixar as an artist, she worked on films such as coming-of-age story Inside Out (2015) and superhero tale The Incredibles 2 (2018).

Still from the animated film Turning Red. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Bao (2018), which Shi wrote and directed, won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. The wordless comedy-drama portrays a Chinese-Canadian woman who dotes on a bao, or meat dumpling, that comes to life and becomes her adopted son.

As in Turning Red, Bao explores the pain mothers feel when they see their child growing up and needing them less. The films also show that for Chinese immigrant mothers, the pain is twofold - as the child becomes independent, they also become less Chinese.

In Bao, the dumpling son begins dating a white girl. In Turning Red, Mei nurtures a secret mania for a boy band her mother fears will make her sweet, innocent child grow up too fast.

The movie celebrates the things teenage girls love, says Shi. Today, the teen rite of passage leans towards K-pop, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, girls went crazy over bands such as Backstreet Boys, Westlife and O-Town. And their songs carried double entendres that sailed over the heads of their pubescent audience.

"Boy bands (and girl groups) are for many girls their first foray into music, fashion and subjects such as S-E-X," says Shi.

"I remember being 11 and belting out the Spice Girls song 2 Become 1 and horrifying my parents, but I was oblivious. I thought it was about friendship."

Turning Red premieres on Disney+ on March 11.

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