Oscar winner Domee Shi’s new film, Turning Red, about a Chinese Canadian girl going through puberty is based in Toronto. So the premiere, fittingly, was in Toronto on Tuesday night. Domee was there along with cast members Sandra Oh, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Rosalie Chiang.
Domee won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2019 for Bao. She is the first woman to ever direct a Pixar short and is now the “first female filmmaker with a sole directing credit on a Pixar feature”. By now, we’re all familiar with a Pixar product. We all know what the Pixar standard is. So what did Domee do with that opportunity? She made a movie that focuses on the experiences of a girl in adolescence, on the magic and mess of the female adolescent experience – when your moods are all over the place, when your body is all over the place, when your mother is in your face, when your period is invading your space… literally. Which is actually so very UN-Pixar. But then again, when you’re the first woman to be telling your stories in a Pixar feature, of course those stories are going to be different. If you only have one shot, one opportunity (heavy bass)… would you play it safe? Or would you f-cking go for it? Domee, obviously, went for it. With spectacular results. Many people who’ve seen Turning Red, which premieres tomorrow, March 11, on Disney+, already consider it a Pixar classic…
With the exception of one of the film critics at CinemaBlend who wrote in his review that:
“I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members. Which is fine — but also, a tad limiting in its scope.”
He added in a tweet that:
“Some Pixar films are made for universal audiences. ‘Turning Red’ is not. The target audience for this one feels very specific and very narrow. If you are in it, this might work very well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting.”
The review and the tweet have since been pulled down following criticism not only by members of public but also by the writer’s own peers, other film critics and entertainment journalists who have quite rightly pointed out that film critics are allowed to not like films – that’s not the problem here. But basing your dislike on the film on the fact that the film was not written for you is not it.
But I don’t want to spend any more energy on an issue that doesn’t require any more explanation. Yes, this is an example of why we need more diversity and inclusion across the board, not only in who gets to tell stories but also in who gets to report on those stories. That said, I don’t necessarily think that the people who tell the story and those who report on them necessarily have to have everything in common.
I run a website that covers entertainment news and publishes movie reviews. I am a Chinese Canadian woman raised in Toronto, and Turning Red is very specific to my experience. But I’m not writing the review for this film (which will be posted tomorrow). Sarah, the deputy editor of this website, is the one handling that responsibility. She is not Chinese, she is not Canadian, much of the references to Toronto in the film won’t land with her at all. But that doesn’t mean she can’t assess the film on its merits, and professionally engage with the story. If it turns out that she personally engages with it, that’s a bonus… but it’s not a requirement to the job.
Which is what BIPOC journalists and culture critics have been doing forever with mainstream content up to quite recently anyway. As we all know by now, an overwhelming majority of mainstream entertainment content was made by a narrow community of people with a narrow perspective – and now that the boundaries of the storytelling landscape are expanding (too slowly, sure, but it’s happening), the golden place we’re trying to get to is for everyone to be able to cover those stories, respectfully. If BIPOC critics were able to review an entire legacy of culture that did not include them, and do it well, the same lane should be open in the other direction, so long as the balance of representation is there. As in if the team features a broad range of voices, then it doesn’t always have to be the case that the Asian person reviews all the movies and shows by Asian creatives. And on the shows and in the spaces that I’m a part of, this is one of the things I’ve been actively pushing. Of course I’m interested in the assignments that involve Asian talent. But I also don’t think that I should be exclusively assigned to all those assignments. I can cover other stories, and my colleagues should be capable of covering content that doesn’t specifically speak to their experience, so long as they remain open to the opportunity to go beyond the world that they know. And should they find that they don’t connect with the material, or are “exhausted” by it, a more interesting conversation to have, instead of just waving it away like “this isn’t for me”, is to explore WHY the obstacle was there, and confront those barriers. Then, maybe, we’d actually get somewhere.
Yours in gossip,