Bao: A Bite-Size Love Story
“That sensation of when you see something so cute you could just eat it up”, is what Chinese-Canadian Domee Shi tried to encapsulate in her 8-minute Pixar short titled Bao. Spoiler alert, she did, and she did so wonderfully. Bao, currently available on Disney Plus and other streaming platforms is a story of a mother suffering from empty-nest syndrome who receives an unforeseen second chance at maternity when she makes a baozi (steamed bun filled with meat and vegetables) that comes to life. On paper this story may sound a little eccentric, but conveys commentary on complex topics, like parenthood, interratial dating, coming of age, generational differences, and minority life through an anthropomorphic dumpling while illuminatingly displaying Chinese culture for millions to observe.
This brief but mighty film chronicles many trademark Chinese traditions, like visiting the Asian market and bakery, not wearing shoes inside the house, making noodles, tai chi, and of course filling dumplings. We see the reinstated mother take public transit through Chinatown as well as inside her home, with kitchen shelves adorned with typical Asian spices and condiments, Cantonese soap operas on the TV, her son snacking on shrimp crackers, a rice cooker in the background, tin foil covering the stove burners, toilet paper on the dining room table doubling as napkins, and walls that showcase calligraphy. It's important to point out these elements, as they are rarely displayed in mainstream performing arts.
All of these elements portrayed so truthfully and consicefully are due to 31 year old Domee Shi, the director and writer who based the story on her own experiences growing up as a single child in Toronto in a family of Chinese immigrants. She broke barriers not only as the first female Pixar short director, but as one of the youngest and one of the few people of color too. Bao is not only extraordinary for its endearing storytelling, but for its all Asian cast, mostly Asian off-screen production team, and brilliant original score by Toby Chu, which, in the vein of Chinese culture removes the need for dialogue allowing the actions to literally be louder than words. The animators drew aesthetic inspiration from My Neighbors the Yamadas, a film Shi watched as a kid and technical inspiration from Shi’s mother herself, who was flown out to make dumplings for the illustrators to examine and replicate for the opening scene. Shi also took the team to dumpling-making classes, restaurants, and encouraged independent consumption of Chinese animation to provide a product that was truly authentic. Through those experiences and this Asian story told by Asian people themselves, cultural specificity and delightful nuances like the facial hair on the baozi son being sesame seeds, and the well-fit dual meaning of “treasure” and “something precious” to the title are a result.
Originally premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and later widely released before 2018’s Incredibles 2, Bao has taken countless viewers into the home of a Chinese immigrant family. Bao garnered more than civilian support as well, it won many critic accolades and the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the 91st Academy Awards, an incredible feat in the often eurocentric, white dominated ceremony.
Its unique narrative highlights so many aspects of an otherwise mostly untold culture and
subverts expectations and stereotypes with lessons. From the mother’s perspective, loving someone sometimes means letting them go and from the son’s point of view, comes knowledge of appreciating one’s culture. They both learn about change, and the fundamental things that hold them together despite it. Bao’s Asian audience can appreciate the many aforementioned cultural elements and the importance of representation, while non-Asian viewers can relate to the universal truths of Bao’s allegorical expression. Those of growing up, reconciling with one’s culture, the occasional smothering by a parent, and love for dumplings. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching it, do so soon!
Bao is a story of Chinese culture, of maturation, of leaving the nest, of being left in the nest, of the significance of cultural food, of motherhood, and most of all, love. When you watch Bao, you probably won’t get what you initially bargain or expect. Whether the reaction is tears, laughter, contemplation, or a combination of them all, it is an effect of the immense, complicated, intense, robust love demonstrated through Shi’s phenomenal characterization, remarkable music, spectacular plot, and marvelous settings in the tiniest of packages.
Now that I’ve reminded (or introduced) this heartwarming story, I issue a formal prompt to support your locally owned dimsum restaurant; or, if you’re feeling adventurous, follow the link below to Domee Shi’s own family recipe, doing both of course, with love as the main ingredient.
Written by Meghan Wicktor and Edited by Pooja Manjakandy