Bao is the latest short film to be paired with a Pixar blockbuster, and it’s been the most memorable short film the company has put to monitor. A Chinese-Canadian mother makes ‘bao’, and in the jaws of her mouth is startled to discover it has come to life as a baby. Taking the bao under her wing as he grows up, their initially affectionate relationship grows acrimonious as the bao grows older and distances himself from his mum, much to her chagrin. The climax sees the bao attempting to leave their home with his fiancé, and the mum eating her bao son to stop him from leaving. This culminates in her devastation, before making the dramatic reveal of her human son (whose face closely resembles the bao) who sits with her and comforts her, sharing a dish of bao together. Now, I’m going to disregard people that didn’t understand the symbolism and core message of the short – I’m not interested in explaining my interpretation to people who just didn’t connect with the short. If the film didn’t resonate with you, then fair enough. What I want to discuss is the question of whether it’s a universal film or a film specifically about Chinese diasporas in the West, which became a side discussion that I think merits an exploration.
After all, one aspect of our lives that we can find across all cultures and ethnicities is family
For me, the bao was symbolic of the mother’s struggles at processing her human son reaching adulthood and moving from his family. She processes it by imagining having a second son and looking for ways to stem the inevitable tide of adulthood, but inevitably comes unstuck. Upon initial viewing, I can understand the belief that it’s a ‘colourblind’ film of universal message. After all, one aspect of our lives that we can find across all cultures and ethnicities is family. The conflict between parents and their children, the struggle for teenagers to establish their own identities outside of their parents and for parents to do so outside of their children is something that everybody can understand, at least intellectually. With a surface analysis, it’s easy to conclude it’s a universal film.
But there’s also a cultural context woven into the short. As someone of Chinese descent who partly grew up in a Chinese immigrant household, it really hit a chord with me that wasn’t struck for my friends that don’t have Asian ancestry. Disregarding the Chinese characters and setting for a universal interpretation is a somewhat legitimate interpretation but not a holistic one. The visual animation style, the setting, and characters are integral to the language of cinema and help evoke emotional responses from its viewers. In a society where there’s a disturbing absence of films from East and South East Asian filmmakers, consciously choosing to make a short animation centred around a Chinese immigrant family becomes a political act in of itself as their mere presence invites people who don’t normally get the opportunity to identify with their cultural experiences, as well as discussions and exposure to these experiences that are usually non-existent.
The visual cues will resonate uniquely with people from Chinese households, reminding them of their family and culture through the food that they cook
This is most evident in the Chinese cuisine that symbolises the connection to their family which is inextricably linked to Chinese culture. The distance between the bao son and her mum is symbolised by the way he eats; after the first sign of conflict arises when he’s stopped from playing football, he doesn’t eat any Chinese food until the resolution of the conflict by the human son. Her last attempt to reaffirm their relationship by cooking a massive (and tasty looking) meal is thwarted by her son who – like all teenage dumplings – wants to be with his friends. And the reconciliation is done through food. The son is holding a box of dumplings to share with her mum, and they finish the film by making dumplings. The visual cues will resonate uniquely with people from Chinese households, reminding them of their family and culture through the food that they cook.
Director, Domee Shi, mentions this is an interview explaining that “in Chinese culture, especially in my family, food is how they show that they love you. They don’t really say ‘I love you’ with words. They say it through their actions […], cooking for you, making sure you’re well fed” and said that bao was an ideal way to tell that story. I know it reminded me of my grandparents making food at home or buying special Chinese treats. Whilst I can’t speak to the details of Toronto and its Chinatown, the details of their house made me feel like I was back in the home of my relatives; the Chinese calendar ornaments hanging on the wall, the crockery, the design of the food. It was both distinctly and authentically an Asian immigrant household. Domee Shi mentions in the aforementioned interview that she gave the art department photos of Toronto and its Chinatown as an inspirational basis for the design.
The premise and design of the film aims to evoke an experience centred around the experience of Chinese diasporas. The foundational premise is built with this lens that informs the approach to making the film. Of course, there’s an ability for people without that background to connect with the film as the themes can appeal to non-primary target members of the audience who can empathise with experiences different from their own. But that doesn’t change the choice to use a Chinese setting, nor does it contradict the fact that Chinese immigrants resonate with the story in a way that other people didn’t.
Right now, Hollywood and Western cinema isn’t willing to give Asians authorship over any stories, let alone their own
And, frankly, Hollywood has a minority problem most pronounced with Asians and people of Asian descent. Across an analysis of 1,100 films over 11 years which consisted of the top 100 films every year from 2007 to 2017, 3.7% of directors were Asian/Asian American and only 4.8% of characters analysed (with an ascertainable race/ethnicity) were Asian. Those numbers by themselves are fairly damning. But also consider for a moment the qualitative differences between these roles. Starring in a top 5 ranking film for the year is more valuable than one ranked 95th, and just think how often do you see a lead Asian actor in franchise films or Oscar nominated films? How many Asian actors or directors active in Hollywood could you name? And let’s not forget about the well-documented phenomenon of whitewashing, and extensive criticisms about roles for Asian actors being the same peripheral stereotypical roles. Right now, Hollywood and Western cinema isn’t willing to give Asians authorship over any stories, let alone their own. Is it surprising that when Bao does this that instinctively one looks to bypass the aspects that relate to Asian culture for universality?
It’s wonderful that, at least some, people of different races and ethnicities that connected with the film. But the conclusion I’ve come to watching the film, reading around the discourse of this film, and watching interviews of the director is there’s an Asian lens integrated into it. The director is writing from her personal experience of the antagonisms between parent and child, whilst celebrating Chinese culture. Even if you want to quote Barthes verbatim and tell me the author is dead, its design still expresses the themes through an Asian viewpoint as demonstrated by how Asian diaspora communities responded to the short. Irrespective of their universality, a new dimension is offered by the film that speaks something slightly more to an Asian diaspora that are rarely offered the opportunity to do so.
It’s refreshing that Bao stems the current of this pervasive tide but depressing that it’s alone in that arduous task
And taking that away is symptomatic of the wider problem in modern Western cinema of not allowing people of Asian descent to lead the creation of their own narratives. It’s refreshing that Bao stems the current of this pervasive tide but depressing that it’s alone in that arduous task. This article, contrary to initial impressions, isn’t any kind of an attack on the presumed white and Western viewer. Rather, it’s an invitation to see the world with new eyes, even only for 7ish minutes. Personally, I think being able to understand new perspectives and broaden your own is one of the most important reasons to watch films. I hope that people of non-Asian and non-immigrant families will take that invitation.