In her Pixar debut, Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi tells a teenage Kafkaesque – influenced by the corona lockdown.
Franz Kafka was a passionate moviegoer. When he awakened a man in the form of vermin in his story “The Metamorphosis” in 1915, the season’s blockbuster was called “The Golem”: Paul Wegener plays the famous sound engineer in it, for whom fate confronts the tragedy of his existence the hard way leads: When the daughter of the junk dealer spurns his love, he mutates into a complete monster. The Jewish myth material was a huge success, which was followed by two sequels.
Today, the Californian Pixar studio specializes in Kafkaesques. As in “Brave”, “Soul” and “Luca” someone is temporarily in the wrong skin in “Red”. It’s 13-year-old Meilin Lee who wakes up one morning in a strange shape. You could say it could have been worse, after all she’s not a bug. But who would want to be an orange giant panda? If you want to put it positively, it resembles a Chinese Olympic mascot whose overproduction is raffled off at fair stands.
When she barricaded herself in shock, her mother unwound the program she had saved for this moment: because in fact, the transformation into a panda is genetically determined, at least in this family. And so Meilin has to find out that even her mother and grandmother have a monstrous side.
It runs in the family
Settled in a Chinese-born family running a temple in 2002 Toronto, the “pandaung” doesn’t seem like a big deal. A certain ritual can keep the restless mind largely below the surface. In fact, the orange panda is above all a symbol: for puberty and periods, sexuality, female primal forces and much more. Of course, all of this is not just a bit much for Meilin at once.
This isn’t Pixar’s Inside Out, which orchestrated the mental shift of growing up in a variety of surreal episodes. Among the many masterpieces the studio has released in recent years, it’s more of a side effort. What is appealing, however, is how a female teenage story is derived from the genre of the monster film: First, the panda responds to embarrassing situations that are magically attracted at this age. But then the girl learns to control the animal in her to a certain extent – until finally the other monsters in the family can no longer be kept under the surface.
It is the first feature film by Domee Shi, who herself emigrated to Toronto when she was two years old. The most remarkable thing about it is once again the constantly new aesthetics at Pixar – here a dazzling bright color that breathes the spirit of the 2000s on the one hand, but also picks up the fast rhythm of the Tic-Toc generation on the other.
How Meilin sees the world
“I think the style of ‘Red’ should be as different as the film itself and should show the world as Meilin, the main character, sees it,” says the director over the phone from London. “I’m equally influenced by western and eastern animation, from Disney and Warner to anime and Miyazaki. You see both influences merging on screen.”
But you also feel reminded of the Japanese Godzilla films. Is the suppression of massive monsters particularly common in Asian societies? “We’ve all been there before. When you’re 13, you’re shocked at what happens to you physically and mentally. Suppressing all that chaos and making yourself presentable to glide through life. We always wanted to do a giant monster film somewhere, but of course it’s the everyday problems that can become huge at that age.”
Now it seems no coincidence that this film about a personal breakout was made during this lockdown period. “The finale is definitely influenced by the lockdown,” confirms the filmmaker. “We wanted to destroy everything. Or go to a concert again! We have denied ourselves that for so long.”
Red. USA 2022. Director: Domee Shi. 100 min. Runs on Disney plus.