When your family rushes to the cinema to see Incredibles 2 this weekend, be sure you head there on time and bring a box of tissues while you’re at it. Pixar’s newest short film, Bao, plays right before every screening of the new animated sequel, and in my opinion, it might be their best short yet. It follows the story of a Chinese-Canadian mother adjusting to her empty nest, who one day creates a little dumpling child to take care of. This eight-minute animated short is home to some of the best high-grade animation, a beautiful score, and delicious animated food. But Bao is so much more than just a technical demo for Pixar – it also serves as a cultural piece! Told through visual storytelling, Bao captures the essence of a 1st and 2nd generation Chinese immigrant household and their family dynamics, as well as paying tribute to the love of Asian mothers.
There’s a lot to love about this short if you come from a family of Asian immigrants. The immediate thing I noted was the expressive, chibi-like art style that manages to successfully cartoonize Asian features, but doesn’t do so in a racist, caricaturist fashion. But thinking about the short since I saw it last Friday, I realized that it made me feel so much more validated and represented than most times I see myself in Western, Asian-targeted media. I then found out that the film was actually directed by a Chinese-Canadian woman, Domee Shi. Bao is the first Pixar short ever to be directed by a woman of any ethnicity, so already this short has made history and garnered lots of praise. I particularly want to highlight the successful way it captured the experiences of coming from a family of Chinese immigrants.
There’s no dialogue in this film, so all of the specific love and care to a Chinese-Canadian household is planted in the detailed production design. A rice cooker sits in the back of the kitchen, there are calendars from Asian supermarkets on the walls, a lucky cat on a shelf, toilet paper bought in bulk from Costco is on the table and tinfoil lines the burners of a stove (subtle nods to our cultural standard of practicality). Most important, however, is the culturally specific focus on how food brings a family together. As is made obvious by the title, the food in the short is symbolic of the developing relationship between the mother and her steamed dumpling child. They bond over barbecue pork buns (cannibalism?), she makes him noodles for dinner, the film starts with her and her husband making dumplings – it’s simply beautiful to see these types of Asian specific foods be normalized and weaved into this story. My family had similar traditions where we would all come together and make egg rolls, so this evoked some of the same feelings of my childhood in me.
I was also impressed that Bao not only tells a story about motherhood, but takes such specific care to focus on an Asian mother adjusting to new cultural standards. The mother struggles with not being able to shelter and protect her steamed dumpling child from playing with other kids, going out as a teenager, and moving out with his new girlfriend. Every Asian child generally has experienced this tight grip that Asian parents display with them, trying to bargain a balance between being there for your strict Asian mother versus having a social life they don’t fully understand. But the mother in this film learns and grows, as her dumpling child can’t always be by her side forever. I won’t spoil it, but the film even takes a strangely dark turn and in that it fully expresses the mother’s feelings in such an empathetic light – further developing its themes of adjusting to new cultural standards. The conflict of the movie comes from this dumpling child growing up in a world that the mother doesn’t have a grasp on. It’s a horrific experience for the mother, but it all comes from a place of love.
In eight simple minutes, Bao manages to paint such a specific experience of being a 1st or 2nd generation Asian immigrant in a new, Western world as well as tell a tale about a specific type of Asian mother. However, it still is able to capture a general emotion that appeals to all types of families. Art that paints a culturally specific experience whilst reaching out to a general public has so much potential to break down barriers and normalize the “other” within us. This is the power of letting people of color tell their own stories, which Disney seems to finally be allowed to happen with this short. Watching it, I was incredibly touched not only at the masterful storytelling on display, but also the fact I was experiencing it with so many other different types of people. I can only hope more opportunities like Bao open up to more creators, and that Domee Shi has more projects in store in the future.
Bao is in theatres in the U.S. today, with every screening of Incredibles 2.