The Creative Potential of Domee Shi and Turning Red
By: Sarah Druhan
Photo: LA Times – Source
At only 33 years old, Pixar’s Domee Shi is blazing a trail in the realms of contemporary film and animation. With an Oscar-winning animated short and recent feature directorial debut Turning Red under her belt, Shi has officially become a name to watch in Hollywood, and not just because of her professional success—her work demonstrates a clear willingness to experiment with what’s traditional for film, to mine quality from originality instead of from what’s always worked before.
Shi was born in Chongqing, China in 1987, two years before her family immigrated to Canada and eventually settled in Toronto. She grew up learning about art from her father, who had been a landscape painter and professor of fine arts, and consuming animated features from Studio Ghibli and Disney. In high school she became immersed in anime and manga and started uploading her fanart to platforms like DeviantArt, where she was easily able to network with other artists and animators. She accepted a three-month internship doing storyboard art for Pixar in 2011, and has worked for the famed animation studio ever since. Her short film Bao premiered at the Tribeca Film
Festival in 2018, accruing widespread critical praise and an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
It’s clear from reading interviews as well as watching Shi-directed work like Bao and Turning Red that she draws from her own life and experiences in her storytelling. Turning Red centers around the misadventures of a teenaged Chinese-Canadian schoolgirl set against the backdrop of early-2000s Toronto; Shi likewise has cited her mother as an inspiration for the main character of Bao, and gets a lot of her creative inspiration from food and Chinese cuisine. Hollywood traditionalists may protest that highly personalized art might not be ‘relatable’ to some audiences, but truthfully, this
problem is extremely rare in art and cinema. The greatest strengths of Shi’s work comes from its honesty: the stories of Bao and Turning Red are both rejuvenated by their clear basis in real experiences. Much of Hollywood’s current hollow attempts at checking off boxes of diversity and representation feel hollow because they are trying to mimic experiences that they just don’t fundamentally understand, unwilling to accept that diversity should encompass not just its creations but also its creators. A movie like Turning Red—engaging, heartwarming, and not afraid to pull its effective tear-jerking punches—is proof of how exploring new stories and perspectives can bring energy and life to the art of filmmaking. Shi’s work shows that representation is not just a box to be ticked off but that it is quality, and acts as a driving force to art that is sincerely lacking in much of the current film landscape.
And in a film landscape that is increasingly becoming hostile toward films that aren’t indie pieces or huge blockbusters—a category that often contains comedy, animation, and family movies,—Turning Red still manages to completely shine. It boasts the memorable quality of many previous films in Pixar’s catalog while thriving with a vivacity that is all its own: its animated yet smoothly flowing story is bolstered by its excitably endearing lead Mei Lee (played to a T by breakout star Rosalie Chiang), some solidly fun explorations of early-2000s female friendship, and a stunning animation style that utilizes anime influences to equally balance moments of energetic hilarity and
devastating heartbreak. While we might be a long way off from the 2023 Academy Awards, the film’s nomination for Best Animated Feature feels almost tangible.
The most standout element of Turning Red, however, is the relationship at the heart of its entire story: that of Mei Lee and her mother, Ming. Shi has said to draw inspiration from her experiences with her mother and her family for her art before, and the clarity and strength of the emotions she put into this relationship’s design creates a richness that the entire movie stands on; to the executives at Pixar, Shi’s deep sense of Mei and Ming’s identities were what fascinated them the most about her original pitch. As the film’s story develops and Mei struggles with her ability to transform into the ‘red panda’, she comes into conflict with her mother—whose approval Mei always prioritized above all else—for the first real time in her life. Shi takes the audience on a nuanced exploration of not only Mei’s feelings, but also Ming’s as she grapples with her previous vision of her daughter and carries her own unresolved issues with her mother into adulthood. The movie builds this rising tension expertly, weaving it into Mei’s problems at school and her attempts to see her favorite boy band until it explodes into a panda-on-panda brawl that topples a concert stadium, taken down only by Mei’s determination and the power of song.
The issues between Mei and Ming are resolved on a pretty quiet note: a tone that purposely stands out from the rest of the film. Mei loves this part of herself—the red panda—but she loves her mother too. These two things can and will coexist. The mother and daughter are forced to leave their old and more idealized relationship behind, in return, however, they are finally able to truly see each other. In any other director’s hands, this dynamic might have felt clumsy. But Shi’s clear understanding of these experiences bring it, and subsequently the movie, to life.
Backlash against Turning Red’s story has become increasingly vocal over the past week. Many viewers and even some professional critics have complained that the film’s focus on Asian-American experiences in 2002 Toronto have felt too ‘limiting’, and have cited issues with its open discussions of teenage girlhood and puberty. These voices mark many of the factors currently holding Hollywood back, desires to continue in the increasingly stale realms of business-as-usual. But the talent of creators like Domee Shi has demonstrated it is strong enough to silence these prejudiced critiques, and hopefully even to push the world of filmmaking into a new era.