“Turning Red” is an animated fantasy-comedy that perfectly captures the beauty of imperfections. In the age of social media, most people live their lives struggling to please others. But no matter how immaculate one may seem on the outside, everyone has an adorably flawed side that just wants to give and receive hugs, like a panda! While one may think of this side of theirs as peculiar, it is unique to each, and one should accept it with pride.
Based in 2002, “Turning Red” takes a viewer back to simpler (but not too old) times to see the world through the eyes of an untarnished middle-schooler. The film feels like a giant panda hug to any person who is too hard on themselves, making it an excellent feel-good watch!
‘Turning Red’ Plot Summary: Meet Meilin Lee
Meilin Lee is a geeky 13-year-old Hong Kong Canadian. Her family runs one of the oldest temples in Toronto, where she works with her mother regularly to maintain it. Meilin’s family is conservative and matriarchal: her mother, Ming, who is an overbearing perfectionist, and her father, Jin, who is calm and easygoing. From scoring straight As in academics to mastering the flute and staying ahead in extracurriculars, Meilin does everything to be in her mother’s good books. Under the masquerade of an overachiever, only her friends Miriam, Priya, and Abby know what Meilin is like in reality! They know that she is funny, clumsy, and mischievous. She likes making a good impression on boys and is a die-hard fan of the pop band 4-Town to the extent that she has named her stopwatch Robaire Jr. (named after 4-Town singer Robaire).
One day, while doing her math homework, Meilin starts sketching sexy pictures of Devon (the cute clerk at the convenience store) in her notebook. To her horror, Ming enters her room and sees all her sketches. She storms to the convenience store with Meilin and tells Devon to stay away from her daughter after showing him her sketches. Meilin’s face is red with embarrassment as every kid at the store starts laughing at her. After an anxious nightmare, she wakes up with the hope of some relief. However, her nightmare isn’t over yet as she looks into the mirror to see herself turned into a giant red panda!
Major Spoilers Ahead
What Is The Legend Of Sun Yee And The Red Panda?
Not sure how to react to a situation like this, Meilin hides in the bathroom. Hearing her weep loudly, Ming and Jin believe that she has gotten her first period. However, when she lets out a sigh of relief, she turns back to her human form (but with red hair). She realizes that by being excitable, she’ll turn back into a red panda. Hence, she must maintain her calm to stay in her human form. Meilin covers her head with a beanie cap to hide her red hair from her mom and goes to school while trying to stay calm. However, when her mother comes back to her school to give her sanitary pads, she cracks up and turns into a panda again. Ming sees her daughter turning into a giant panda and chases her home. Ming and Jin tell Meilin that turning into a red panda is hereditary in the ancestral lineage of Sun Yee.
Sun Yee is the most venerable ancestor of the temple of the Lee family. She was a great scholar, poet, and defender of animals. Of all the animals, Sun Yee’s most precious pet was the cute, independent, and mischievous red panda. When the men went off to serve in the war, Sun Yee worried about her daughters’ safety. One day, she received a blessing that allowed her to turn into a giant red panda to scare predators and protect her daughters. Sun Yee passed this blessing to her daughters, and consequently to the next generations. As times changed and generations passed, the blessing turned into an inconvenience for the daughters of Sun Yee’s ancestry. Every time one of them faces an excitable situation, Sun Yee’s miracle senses trouble and turns them into a giant red panda. Ming reassures Meilin that she can be cured of the spell as she did herself. To do so, the members of the family must carry out a ritual on May 25th, the night of the red moon.
‘Turning Red’ Ending Explained: The Ritual Of The Red Moon
There’s still a month before the ritual, and Meilin is anxious about the panda situation. One day, when Miriam, Priya, and Abby come to meet her, they find out about her hereditary gift. They reassure Meilin that she has nothing to worry about and that they will always be by her side. As her friends comfort her, Meilin feels calm and turns into her human form. She uses the comforting memory of her friends as a calming technique to get back to her human form in a public situation. Having found a temporary solution to her problem, she gathers the confidence to go to school and possibly to the 4-Town concert. Meilin’s parents take her trigger test, wherein they show her a couple of overwhelming pictures followed by a box of adorable kittens. In every situation, Meilin successfully maintains her calm and reassures her parents. While Ming allows her to go to school, she prohibits her from going to the concert.
Like Meilin, her friends too haven’t got permission to go to the concert. While the four friends try to make their peace with the fact, a few kids suddenly catch Meilin in her panda form. To her surprise, the kids find the panda incredibly cute and fluffy and are willing to pay to see it. This stirs up an idea among the four friends to make money for the 4-Town concert. They set up a red panda photo booth with cool panda merchandise and started earning money out of it. Soon, the red panda becomes a buzz around the school. To collect money for one last ticket, Meilin decides to become a panda for Tyler’s birthday in exchange for 200 dollars. However, just in time for the party, Meilin is stuck with her aunts and her grandmother, who has come to visit their place. While Meilin manages to escape her home, she is hesitant as her grandmother warns her about the consequences of using the panda too often.
Nonetheless, she decides to take the form one last time and earn the money for their last ticket. Suddenly, the four friends find out that the concert is not on March 18th but March 25th, which is the day of the ritual. Disheartened, Meilin gets into a frenzy with Tyler and is caught in the moment by her mother. Ming blames her friends for influencing her daughter, and Meilin struggles to admit the truth in fear of losing her mother’s validation. Therefore, Meilin’s friends are disappointed in her.
The day of the ritual finally arrives, when the local shaman, Mr. Gao, makes a ceremonial circle around Meilin. The Lee family gathers around to sing, to get her in touch with Sun Yee. To everyone’s surprise, Meilin decides to keep her panda and rebelliously storms out of the concert. Infuriated by her actions, Ming turns into an enormous panda that is far bigger than Meilin’s. On her way to the concert, Meilin discovers that she’s gaining better control over the panda. She reaches the concert and reunites with her friends. Just when she’s about to shake hands with Robaire, Ming makes it to the concert as a destructive monster. When Ming yells at her for misbehaving, Meilin gets hustled up and takes her panda form, turning it into a strange mother-daughter animal fight. After a series of (literally) earth-shattering events, her grandmother and aunts take their panda forms to do the ritual on Ming.
When the chanting begins, Meilin is taken into Sun Yee’s world, where she sees a teenage Ming crying. Ming confesses that she, too, had always been anxious about pleasing her mother. Likewise, her obsession with perfectionism was reflected in her parenting. Meilin consoles Ming by saying that she doesn’t need to be perfect to be loved. The two make their way to Grandma and the aunts, where everyone gets rid of their panda soul, except Meilin. Seeing Meilin’s decision to keep the panda, Sun Yee is overjoyed and gives her a warm embrace, like that of a snuggly panda! Things are back to normal in everyone’s lives, except for Meilin’s panda form, which everyone is now aware of. However, now that Meilin is a grown-up (like she always wanted to be), she respects her personal choices unapologetically!
A red panda is a symbol of balance, non-conformity, and security. Despite being a parent-pleaser like most daughters of the Lee family, Meilin eventually learns to embrace her uniqueness. She stops feeling the need to conform to unrealistic expectations when she is adored by her schoolmates. She uses the opportunity to collect money for the band on her own and protects herself whenever she gets bullied. Eventually, Meilin learns to balance her two forms by thinking of her happy place. Hence, in many ways, Meilin possesses the traits of a red panda. Additionally, she is gentle and cheeky, just like the animal Sun Yee adored so much!
Meilin chooses to keep her panda as she learns to accept it as a part of her, unlike Ming and the other women who despised it. Meilin’s character encourages one to own their individuality unapologetically! After all, you never know how much others like it!
“Turning Red” beautifully captures the parenting style in Asian families that differs from the West. The obsession with grades, the chatty aunties, the parent-pleasing, etc., in the film are spot-on and hilarious (something Asian kids can relate to, too). All things considered, the film is relatable, quirky, and highly recommended.
“Turning Red” is a 2022 Animated Comedy film directed by Domee Shi.