DOUBLE FEATURE: TURNING RED | AFTER YANG
Director: Domee Shi
Writers: Domee Shi & Julia Cho
Starring: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh
Genre: Animated, Family
Released in 2022
BRIEF SYNOPSIS (via Disney + Pixar):
Disney and Pixar’s “Turning Red” introduces Mei Lee, a confident, dorky 13-year-old torn between staying her mother’s dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. Her protective, if not slightly overbearing mother, Ming, is never far from her daughter—an unfortunate reality for the teenager. And as if changes to her interests, relationships and body weren’t enough, whenever she gets too excited (which is practically ALWAYS), she “poofs” into a giant red panda!
If you grew up in the '00s then Pixar likely holds a place in your heart. Monsters, Inc. was the first film I ever saw in the cinema, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were in constant rotation in the VHS player. Films like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL.E and Ratatouille were offering state of the art computer animation paired with actual heartfelt and creative stories. Kids movies that everyone could enjoy. I quite like pretty much every Pixar film up until after Toy Story 3 released in 2010, coincidentally as I was pretty much near the end of my time spent in the age-range for the primary audience of these films.
So is it rosy nostalgia that nothing they've released in the past decade comes close to the highs of their '90s and '00s output? Maybe, but I didn't see certain films like Finding Nemo or WALL.E until I was in my late teens and they are still probably among my favourite Pixar movies.
It's a bit of a surprise that this was a refreshingly positive feeling film for me. For reference, I watched Pixar's previous film Luca last year and was thoroughly nonplussed by it. This in comparison is brimming with personality, beyond the typically stunning animation. However, it is a film I had to bear with for a while. It came close to being a case of "I appreciate this, but it's not for me" because it's a bit annoying (for example: look at the YouTube thumbnail above). It's aggressive with it's wacky characters and their wacky antics throughout, but especially in the rapidly paced opening. They're all screeching "OH EM GEE", doing funny dances and have somewhat grating personalities. I suppose it's authentic to being 13 years old though, the most cringe-inducing age.
LUCKILY, it has a lot of flair, one of the recent Pixar films where the direction and visual style feels inspired beyond just "wow the fur looks sooo real" (though, the fur does in fact look very fluffy and appealing here). So I stuck with it and I came out enjoying it a lot, even though it was a bit annoying at times. It's very creative and weird, you can feel the vision from director-writer Domee Shi. Clearly has a lot of personal touches, the early '00s Toronto setting and Chinese-Canadian heritage of the lead character & her family. I know overbearing parents are categorically an Asian convention, but I related to that aspect of the film a fair bit as well.
The central metaphor for puberty is about as subtle as a gigantic red panda walking into the room but it's presented with such honesty that it's refreshing. They capture the embarrassment that puberty brings quite well, especially for a film intended for all ages. Also the fact this is so low-stakes and avoids a lot of animated film clichés is great, though there's still the big falling out at the turn of the third act that seemingly every film by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and whatever other animated studio always has.
But whatever, this is stylish and distinct. Definitely the direction I want to see Pixar continue going. No overbearing celebrity voice cast either! The 2002 setting in this is a mostly a nuanced use of nostalgia and I'd prefer something like this than something like,,, oh noooo... this.... Forget about that though! This is my favourite Pixar film since Toy Story 3 and even if this is a bit 'much' at times, I love the personality and amount of heart put behind it. Also as usual it looks spectacular and they nail the 2002 era soundtrack, they got the cha cha slide!
(it would have another ½ if it was less annoying!)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Released in 2021 (Cannes Film Festival) / 2022 in cinemas and streaming
BRIEF SYNOPSIS (via A24):
When his young daughter's beloved companion — an android named Yang — malfunctions, Jake (Colin Farrell) searches for a way to repair him. In the process, Jake discovers the life that has been passing in front of him, reconnecting with his wife (Jodie Turner-Smith) and daughter across a distance he didn't know was there.
South Korean born filmmaker Kogonada is a keen student of film. Before making his impressive directorial debut in 2017 with Columbus he mainly worked creating video essays and was commissioned by The British Film Institute and The Criterion Collection to produces supplementary work to be included as extras on physical releases of revered films, such as those by Wes Anderson, Robert Bresson, Richard Linklater and Stanley Kubrick, among others. Debuting with Columbus in 2017, Kogonada proved himself a filmmaker to keep an eye on, giving a very warm character focused film that had an interesting choice of setting that he really manages to make the most out of, cinematography wise. It's a great film, and an even better travel advert for the relatively small city of Columbus, Indiana (NOT the relatively huge city of Columbus, Ohio).
After Yang is a convincing follow-up to that film, carrying over a lot of the excellent technical aspects. Cinematography is almost always impressively staged and the film makes use of warm orange lighting and lush greens which compare and contrast well, suiting the subdued mood of the film. Specifically the use of green lighting as the characters are driven about by their self-driving cars was reminding me of the melancholy of the amazing Chinese film Fallen Angels.
This opens up with a very charming opening credits sequence. I always appreciate a bit of dancing, but following it dives into the heavier central themes of mortality, grief and living as a human in an increasingly technology dependant, and dominated world. The setting of After Yang is set in the indistinct future, but one that feels alien enough to pique our curiosity but familiar as for it to feel attainable in the near future. There's a great 'show don't tell' approach to building up this light sci-fi premise, it's well written to avoid exposition being offloaded and the script is focused in on the characters and thematic content.
I do enjoy this film's quiet approach to storytelling and character development. It's a very delicate film, maybe too delicate. You could argue that the themes of the film could be better communicated via some urgency in the plot, but it's very low-key and for the most part it's better for it. There's a constant wistful and melancholic mood to the film that makes for a film you can easily sink into and enjoy aesthetically as well as on a thematic level. Performances are pretty good across the board. Child actor Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja makes a heartfelt impression in her first ever movie role and Colin Farrell is dependable as ever in the lead's shoes.
Its vision of a maybe not so distant future is fascinating and understated, it has interesting things to say about A.I. and parenting in an increasingly technologically dominant age. After Yang is in a strangely specific subgenre of sci-fi which is low-stakes observations on technology's impact on the human experience, and so it has quite a few peers. This is among one of the most technically impressive and delicately told stories in that subgenre, but maybe the fact that it's so quiet and understated, for me at least, means it will lack quite as much of a lasting impression as other films in the genre, or even this film could've managed.
But in the end, this is an ode to the quiet moments in life that we take for granted and the film makes sure to empathise that point by capturing some simple scenarios in a effortlessly beautiful way. It's nice to have a film like this that while cautioning the increasing dependence on technology's effect on the world, it shows that despite everything there'll always be moments of wonder and beauty if we simply slow down to acknowledge and take it in. A very nice film! Kogonada is two for two and I'll be there for whatever he does next.