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From ‘Turning Red’ to ‘Everything Everywhere,’ the Asian (North) American mom goes mainstream

A woman with black hair and a googly eye on her forehead strikes a fighting stance in an office space.
Michelle Yeoh in the 2022 sci-fi thriller “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
(David Bornfriend / A24)

Early on in the Pixar animated fantasy “Turning Red,” 13-year-old Mei Lee is subjected to a ghastly public humiliation when her mother, Ming (superbly voiced by Sandra Oh), goes leafing through her notebook and finds lusty drawings of Devon, the cute older boy Mei’s been crushing on. Convinced that this “degenerate” must have taken advantage of her daughter in some way, Ming furiously confronts the poor, unsuspecting Devon at the convenience store where he works, demanding, in full view of her mortified daughter and several giggling onlookers: “What have you done to my Mei-Mei?”

Being embarrassed by one’s parents is a rite of passage for nearly every coming-of-age comedy protagonist. And the title of this one warns you that you’re in for a story about chronic shame and embarrassment: “Turning Red” may be a cheeky menstrual reference (an impressive first for a Pixar movie), but it also describes the basic act of blushing. And this particular humiliation cuts deep, especially if you look at Ming and Mei, a Chinese Canadian mother-daughter duo, and discern more than an echo of your own experience as a parent, a child or both.

An echo, it’s worth noting, is not a mirror. Speaking in my Mei-adjacent capacity as the Chinese American son of a Chinese American mom, my ready identification with that particular scene from “Turning Red” comes with its own hesitations and qualifications. Even allowing for the comically exaggerated register in which most family-friendly studio animation operates, surely Ming overreacts to a slightly insane degree. Wouldn’t any mother properly interrogate the hell out of her child before jumping to conclusions? (Or maybe she underreacts: Depending on what she thinks “take advantage” means, wouldn’t it make sense to get the authorities involved?)

Then again, some might argue that it’s precisely Ming’s overreaction that qualifies her as such a recognizable, persuasive model of Asian motherhood. Certainly I can attest to that. Watching Ming rifle through Mei’s personal notebook, I was reminded of the time my mom snatched away a letter I’d gotten from a friend (this was pre-internet). Because I was still just a teenager, privacy was a nonexistent concept in our house. My mail was her mail. Curiously, the sight of Ming storming into that convenience store brought me back to the time my mom picked me up from elementary school and (rightly, admirably) reprimanded a bully in front of everyone, because the teachers clearly weren’t doing a thing and, hell, somebody had to.

For all its exquisite cultural specificity, Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’ proves that the only real target audience is the one that wants good stories.

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Maybe you too were raised by an Asian American (or Asian Canadian) mom with some resemblance to Ming, a mom who only ever wanted the best for you and never let you forget it. And if you will allow me to generalize further, in hopes of getting more specific: Maybe she wanted you to enjoy the material benefits of a Western upbringing while still upholding the strict cultural traditions of an Eastern one — and to that end, she rigorously policed your academics, your extracurricular activities and your sorry excuse for a social life. Maybe she skimped on verbal and physical affection, favoring a love language that expressed itself in steamers full of dumplings or plates of sliced fruit.

Maybe she didn’t mind embarrassing you in public since your family, being of Asian descent and therefore of perpetual outsider status, didn’t really belong to that public in any meaningful sense. And maybe she’d blanch if anyone dared call her a “tiger mom,” a term popularized by Amy Chua’s 2011 memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” and disavowed by many as offensive. Then again, if she’s anything like my mom, maybe she embraces the “tiger mother” label and wears it proudly. (Full disclosure: I asked my mom’s permission to mention her in this piece, promising I wouldn’t disclose anything too embarrassing. She replied, “Anything you write would embarrass you more than it embarrasses me.”)

Sandra Oh collaborated with breakout female filmmakers to explore generational fears in the horror film ‘Umma’ and Pixar’s ‘Turning Red.’

There are limits, of course, to how effectively we can rely on personal experience as a yardstick, even when it sometimes feels like the only yardstick we have. The fewer cultural representations we have of a particular character, the closer and more harshly we tend to scrutinize the few representations we’re fortunate enough to get — which partly explains and even complicates my own mixed appreciation of “Turning Red.” Is Ming’s behavior plausible or implausible? Is she an authentic, edifying figure or the latest version of an overused, under-examined stereotype? Yes, no, neither, both. Even to ask these questions is to place the character in a box as limiting, in its own way, as years of Hollywood indifference.

Asian American moms, in other words, are not a mom-olith. And it’s been gratifying to see so many recent mainstream movies arrive at that conclusion, several of them by way of richly imaginative premises that happily dispense with realism in favor of fantasy, science fiction and even horror. And why not? (Whose Asian American childhood wasn’t, at some point, a horror movie?) In “Umma,” Iris K. Shim’s muddled but intriguing ghost story, Oh plays Amanda, a quietly anxious Korean American mother whose lengthy estrangement from her emotionally abusive mother has sinister implications for her relationship with her own teenage daughter. Shim’s attempt to meld parental trauma and boogey-mom shivers isn’t entirely successful, but Oh’s performance sounds a resonant echo of her very different work in “Turning Red”: In both movies, a cycle of generational pain can be broken only when a controlled and controlling mother learns to relinquish her tight hold on her own kid — and, ultimately, herself.

An animated mother and daughter, the mother looking at her daughter's journal.
Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) and daughter Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) in a scene from the Pixar movie “Turning Red.”
(Disney/Pixar)

The mother-daughter tensions within a Chinese Canadian family fuel “Turning Red,” a charming feature debut from “Bao” director Domee Shi.

As the director and co-writer of “Turning Red” already demonstrated in her Oscar-winning Pixar short, “Bao,” Domee Shi has a gift for exploring deep cross-cultural, cross-generational dynamics via an outlandish fantasy conceit. At the end of “Turning Red” (spoiler alert), Ming, enraged at Mei’s disobedience, inflicts a Godzilla-sized red-panda avatar on a packed stadium, in a spectacular action climax that plays like a PG-rated riff on “Carrie.” But there’s one crucial, culturally revealing difference: In this “Carrie,” it’s the domineering Asian mother, not her teenage offspring, who gives voice to a destructive, all-consuming rage. Another key difference: It somehow ends happily, not with a vengeful hand reaching up from the grave but with a mutually affirming mother-daughter embrace.

An even more out-there kind of intergenerational reconciliation takes place in Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s multiverse-hopping action-comedy extravaganza “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Protagonist Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is an emotionally and financially taxed Chinese American woman for whom marriage and motherhood have long since stopped paying meaningful dividends. And while this Evelyn turns out to be just one of many Evelyns, she grants Yeoh a rare opportunity to play frustrated and frazzled, to embrace a rougher, messier version of the sedate, ultra-composed mothers and mentor figures populating her filmography.

Stars Michelle Yeoh and Stephanie Hsu on the hot dog hands, zany martial arts fights and mother-daughter love story at the core of ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’

Before “Everything Everywhere,” Yeoh’s most famous mom movie was the glossy romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” in which she plays Eleanor Young, a member of Singapore’s ultra-wealthy Chinese elite bent on ensuring her highly eligible son doesn’t marry a mere commoner. (The commoner in question is played by Constance Wu, whose work on the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” was itself a sly, knowing riff on tiger-mom tropes.) On paper, Eleanor is pretty one-note, but Yeoh is terrifically nuanced: Showing us the motivation behind every pursed lip and dagger-like glare, she roots Eleanor’s intense judgment, persuasively and tragically, in a lifetime of being continually judged herself.

Eleanor has it all together; Evelyn, gloriously, does not. Kwan and Scheinert aren’t afraid to milk her for screwball laughs, poking fun at her anxiety, her grumpiness and her creative bungling of the English language. (My mom — there I go again — would never confuse “Ratatouille” for “Raccacoonie,” but she has her own inimitable way with a malapropism.) But Evelyn is also a figure of tremendous pathos. Like the hopeless yin to Ming’s overachieving yang, she’s full of hopes and aspirations but unable to fulfill any of them. She runs a failing business, barely occupies one half of a foundering marriage and is forever at odds with her teenage daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). (Rebellious teenage daughters are the indispensable foils of this season’s many Asian American movie moms.)

Daniels, the directors of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ reveal the inspirations behind the wildest ideas in their maximalist action movie.

Evelyn is, in her own estimation, a catastrophic failure at life, the worst possible version of herself. And when she gets a chance to behold all the other possible versions of herself, she experiences profound regret — at having left her home country to move to a place where she barely spoke the language; at having run off to marry a man who never earned her family’s approval; at having given up dreams and opportunities for a life that doesn’t, in the end, seem to have been worth the sacrifice.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that while Evelyn’s fate may ultimately be too eccentric to be described as universal (or multiversal), her regret is nonetheless achingly recognizable. I’ve heard those regrets articulated within my own circle of family and friends, and I’ve seen them, albeit less often, in the faces of movie characters. I’m thinking of my friend Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” specifically Yeri Han’s piercing performance as a Korean immigrant woman far from home, carrying her family through a trying time. I’m thinking, too, of Alice Wu’s 2004 indie charmer “Saving Face,” which, like “Everything Everywhere” — a movie it doesn’t otherwise much resemble — follows a super-stressed Chinese American mom in denial about, among other things, her daughter’s sexuality.

You can see the ghosts of these films and a few others — including Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” and Wayne Wang’s “The Joy Luck Club,” still the grandmother of all Asian American mother-daughter movies — continually refracted through “Everything Everywhere’s” labyrinth of meta-mirrors. And maybe you’ll see echoes of your own mother too; I certainly see mine, even if they are incomplete, imperfect echoes. Frankly, I’m glad they’re imperfect. The trouble with saying you feel seen by a work of art — to my mind the laziest, least insightful formulation in our current cultural discourse — is that it winds up reducing your experience and the work of art in the same stroke. It eliminates nuances, simplifies contradictions and makes an unfortunate fetish of relatability.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” understands this. It etches a singularly vivid portrait of a woman we seldom encounter in American movies — a Chinese immigrant who is also a mother, a daughter, a businesswoman, a fighter, a chef, a singer, an actor, a genius and a screw-up — and suggests, scene by scene and transformation by transformation, that she is far more than a set of tropes or a one-joke thumbnail. As the title suggests, she contains emotional, spiritual and experiential multitudes; she’s infinity incarnate, and she’s also just the beginning. The peculiar triumph of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” isn’t that it makes anyone feel seen. It suggests, on the contrary, that we haven’t seen anything yet.

In writer-director Iris K. Shim’s ‘Umma,’ Sandra Oh plays a woman haunted by her estranged mother.

A terrific performance by Michelle Yeoh powers this multiverse-traversing extravaganza from directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (‘Swiss Army Man’).

‘We have to stand up for ourselves and be courageous enough to have a voice,’ said Michelle Yeoh, star of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once.’


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