'Turning Red' director and cast on paying homage to transformation movies and telling an authentic Asian-Canadian coming-of-age story

Turning Red writer and director Domee Shi, producer Lindsey Collins, and actors Sandra Oh and Rosalie Chiang talk about why it was so important that the movie told an authentic coming-of-age story for Asian-Canadians and Asian-Americans. They also discuss paying homage to coming-of-age transformation movies like Teen Wolf.

Video Transcript



- Is everything OK?



- I'm a gross, red monster!

KEVIN POLOWY: Domee, you co-wrote the story, in addition to directing. What can you say about its origins? I mean, are there parts that are autobiographical? I mean, probably not the part about actually transforming into a giant red panda, but Mei's background, perhaps?

DOMEE SHI: Yeah, definitely Mei herself. You know, I was her. I was that 13-year-old dorky, nerdy, passionate Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in the early aughts in Toronto.

And there was just this specific moment in my life where I went from being my mom's good little girl, having control over my life, to being a giant, hormonal, hairy, raging beast. [LAUGHS] And I kind of wanted to go back in time and kind of unpack like what was happening during that time. Like, puberty was happening, and kind of analyzing it from the perspective of Mei, like from the kid, but also from the perspective of my mom, who at the time, I thought, was just this like oppressive, like, unfair villain. But now being an adult myself, I want to understand her on a deeper level.

KEVIN POLOWY: Were there any specific moments that are portrayed in the film that actually happened to you in real life?

DOMEE SHI: Yeah, definitely. I had a secret sketchbook under my bed where I drew all my fictional boyfriends and the dates and scenarios we would go on. My mom also did follow me on my first day of middle school because she was worried about me. She did hide behind a tree with sunglasses on, thinking I wouldn't recognize her. But you know, it's not Clark Kent.

LINDSEY COLLINS: It is "Superman-y."

DOMEE SHI: Yeah, yeah.

LINDSEY COLLINS: It's almost like you can't make this up.

DOMEE SHI: Yeah, but she didn't fight with a security guard.


DOMEE SHI: Yeah, you know. I'm--

LINDSEY COLLINS: She did have some boundaries

DOMEE SHI: Yeah, she had some boundaries.

KEVIN POLOWY: She drew the line somewhere.

LINDSEY COLLINS: Yeah, exactly.

KEVIN POLOWY: It was hard for me not to think of one of my favorite movies growing up while watching this, and that is "Teen Wolf" with Michael J Fox.



KEVIN POLOWY: Was that in your minds at all? Was that an inspiration?


DOMEE SHI: Yeah, definitely.

LINDSEY COLLINS: I think all transformation films, coming of age films, there is something that is super-fun about that. You do remember those films as being this awesome way of, kind of, showcasing different parts of growing up. Or even when you're an adult, like the Incredible Hulk. I mean, all of it is part of, you know, kind of deep, you know, tapping into something inside of you that you're trying to hide and it comes out. So-- and I think what we liked also about it was the element of him being celebrated for it.

DOMEE SHI: Yeah, yeah, definitely, "Teen Wolf" was an inspiration.

KEVIN POLOWY: "Turning Red" is drawing a lot of early love for the specificity it portrays in growing up Asian-Canadian. How would you say it tackles sort of culturally specific elements in those communities, you know, like strict parenting or the acknowledgment or lack thereof, of mental health and anxiety, sort of within the realm of broad animated comedy?

DOMEE SHI: I mean it was there from the very beginning of working on this movie, where we wanted to tell, like, a more nuanced story between this parent and this child that was, like, specific to the immigrant kid, the Asian kid experience. So Mei herself, she loves her mom. She, like, you can tell from the beginning of a movie that she cares about her mom so much and her family, and she genuinely loves taking care of the temple and honoring them and pleasing them.

But at the same time, she is growing up. She is developing these new feelings, new friendships. She's getting obsessed with boy bands and Western culture. But she wants to be-- she still wants to be good for her parents and her family. And that specific struggle, I think, is different than a lot of Western, kind of, coming of age stories.

I think for a lot of Asian kids, like myself, the answer is not really black and white. It's not like choose this or that, like, honor your parents or yourself. Like, you want to do both. But there's, like, a tragedy in-- in that you can't or that it'll-- that there will always be this push and pull for the rest of your life.

SANDRA OH: For me, one of the most moving moments in the film is a moment when Mei, as her red panda self, is wanting to leave the temple, and her mom, her dad, her grandma, and all her aunties are trying to bring her back in. And for me that one image, it still makes me emotional because I feel like every generation needs to go through this. And specifically, let's say, from an Asian perspective, it's-- it's a beautiful image of the people who love you the most and who you love, who want the best for you, who want you to stay the same, while you, yourself, as a young person, need to break off to be who you are and within, also, that, creating new culture. So I feel like that was, for me, one of my favorite images.

KEVIN POLOWY: Well, I remember your parents became bona fide phenomenons when you brought them to the Emmys a few years ago. They seemed absolutely lovely. But was your mom the type who embarrass you, like we see with Ming and Mei?

SANDRA OH: No, actually, she wasn't. She's not the type of person who embarrassed me. She was actually not the type of person-- mother-- who was overprotective. My mom-- [LAUGHS]-- my mom's tough in other ways. She's just tough in other ways, but not exactly those aspects now.

KEVIN POLOWY: What cultural aspects of this story were you each excited to see brought to the forefront in a Pixar movie?

ROSALIE CHIANG: There's certain-- there's certain jokes in there I feel like Asians would get when you hear it. However, other people won't understand it.

SANDRA OH: Can you think of one?

ROSALIE CHIANG: One of them is the fact that four is an--

SANDRA OH: Oh, an unlucky number.

ROSALIE CHIANG: --an unlucky number.


ROSALIE CHIANG: Do you know why? Four in Chinese is "sí" and "sí" also can mean-- also sounds like "death" in Chinese. So it's an unlucky thing. So every time someone mentions it's unlucky, all the Asians are laughing but everyone else-- all the Chinese are laughing--

SANDRA OH: I was like, yeah.

ROSALIE CHIANG: --and everyone else is like what? OK.

SANDRA OH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.


SANDRA OH: Yeah, 4*Town, I thought that was very, very funny.


- (SINGING) I'm never going to let you cry, oh, cry, don't cry.

KEVIN POLOWY: I mean, 4*Town is going to be all the rage after this one. Who are they based on? I've got to imagine like, the most popular boy bands of the 90s, 2000s?

DOMEE SHI: Oh, yeah.


DOMEE SHI: They're definitely a combination of NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, O-Town--


DOMEE SHI: --98 degrees. But we also tried to like give a shout-out to modern day boy bands too, like, K-pop with Tae Young--


DOMEE SHI: --who's a Korean-American member of the boy band.

LINDSEY COLLINS: We wanted to create a new favorite. We wanted to also make it feel like, oh, my God, I totally knew that song in, like, early tests. I was just like, no, you didn't. Like, it didn't exist. Like, then I think they did such a great job of feeling, like, oh, my gosh, I can sing along to it. I know this song.

KEVIN POLOWY: Finally, Rosalie, are you a Billie Eilish fan, and have you gotten to meet her yet?

ROSALIE CHIANG: Oh, I mean, of course, of course. She's such a talented-- she and Finneas are such talented people. And the fact that the songs are so-- the song, I mean, the boy-- I mean, they wrote the boy band's-- the 4*Town songs-- and I just love-- I mean, they're so different from Billie Eilish's discography, so it just shows how well-rounded they are. It's just so impressive. And the songs are so catchy. And, yes, I did meet Billie Eilish--

SANDRA OH: On the carpet.

ROSALIE CHIANG: Yes. I got to take a picture with her. I mean--

SANDRA OH: That's crazy.

ROSALIE CHIANG: --and, well, she's so cool and so-- I was, like, the second I saw her she like complimented me. I complimented her back. It was a moment.

- We are 4*Townies, remember? Ride or die!

- (SINGING) You are my one true love.