On Pixar’s short film “Bao”, the Asian immigrant experience, and the generational barriers that linger within multicultural families. Originally published in Generasian Magazine in December 2018.
Eggplant-shaped characters fill the pages of Domee Shi’s concept art. Their eyes are soft and their smiles gentle; their expressions alternating between dreamy and comical. Ink blotches fill in the shadows beneath them and strokes of watercolor shade their skin, creating a sense of transience, as if the color might seep out of their outlines at any moment. Shi’s art is endearing and humorous — in her recipe illustrations, a mother lovingly rolls a stroller down a road, and rather than a child, a bao is seated in its stead. Next to the mother, Shi’s self-portrait holds a half-eaten bao and flashes a cheeky thumbs-up to the reader.
These elements appear in Pixar’s computer-animated short film, Bao (2018), which premiered alongside Incredibles 2 this past summer. Directed by Shi, a Chinese-Canadian storyboard artist, Bao is Pixar’s first female-directed short film. Described by Shi as a “Chinese version” of the little gingerbread man, Bao focuses on a Chinese immigrant mother struggling with empty nest syndrome. Bao is a double entendre, translating to bāo (a dumpling) and bǎo (treasure, a common childhood endearment). The short begins when one of her steamed dumplings comes to life, before following the dumpling’s journey from fragile infant to independent adult. Throughout the montage, the mother frets over the dumpling, licking his wounds and filling him up with food, quite often literally.
This is typical Pixar fare — retaining a family-friendly brand, Pixar appeals for individual empathy, especially during periods of change and turbulence. This resonating success is seen in films such as Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory, which have connected with audiences that grew up their predecessors, and Incredibles 2 is its latest addition, breaking records at the box office — in North America alone, it is the ninth-highest grossing movie of all-time and highest grossing animated film of all-time.
So why was Bao’s reception so polarizing? Its attachment to Incredibles 2 has given Bao more viewer exposure than any other Pixar short, and Bao’s greenlighting signals Pixar’s evolving storytelling interests. Indeed, Bao’s core themes remain quite consistent with the studio’s brand, and a short addressing family sacrifice and generational conflict seems like an ideal candidate to debut alongside Incredibles 2.
Upon release, Bao was praised by the Western Asian population, and viewers’ tearful reactions surfaced on social media. They marvelled over its tiny details, expressing empathy towards the mother and identifying with the dumpling son. While there was also praise from non-Asian audiences, some online viewers ridiculed the short, dubbing it as too confusing, funny or disturbing, while others argued that Bao’s Chinese specificity was unnecessary. Bewilderment extended towards basic perception, as a surprising number mistook the mother for a young boy — this is a note on Asian invisibility in Hollywood, as a lack of complex representation has made it difficult for some to literally tell Asians apart. Some escalated it further, demonizing the short for promoting dysfunctional, non-PG values, many assigning what they deemed as negligent parenting to the Chinese culture. There were other variables — Incredibles 2 was a childhood landmark for many, due to its promotion of nuanced family and work-life dynamics, albeit in a traditionally American context. This likely influenced the expectations of non-Asian demographics, who were presumably unaware of Bao’s placement. From appearance alone, Bao seems like a divergence from mainstream family fare.
This is precisely why Bao is as important as it is. Bao, like many Asians Americans or Canadians, rests upon a peculiar rung — it is indisputably North American, but does not look like it. While Bao’s themes are universal, they are especially salient for children of immigrants — what happens when you struggle to speak your loved ones’ language? Familial miscommunication is often rooted in cultural barriers, and conflict resolution becomes difficult. Immigrant children are already prone to societal dismissal and misunderstanding, and encountering gaps in knowledge within their immediate families can heighten this frustration. Where cultural literacy is lacking, internal dissonance grows more acute.
In Bao, the story is told in gestures — no language reigns, whether it be English or Chinese. The silence feels profound — every shift in expression, every door slam, every wordless cry is deliberate. Despite its lack of dialogue, the short is affectionate, teeming with cultural signifiers, from lovingly crafted Chinese dishes to the vibrant streets of Chinatown. Shi is deeply influenced by Japanese animation, most notably Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbors the Yamadas, and similarly, the world of Bao balances between stylized and realistic. Aesthetically, the short is built on round, malleable shapes, such as the comically dented dough-skin of the dumpling, the mother’s gentle, capable hands, and the stout curvature of the furniture. Disproportionately large fruits and vegetables make the characters seem smaller and friendlier, a nod to the chibi-esque proportions of Asian pop symbols.
Amidst these elements lies an undercurrent of heaviness, and Shi introduces this dimension as a byproduct of living in an Asian immigrant family. In Bao, love is made tangible through characters’ actions, and in a typically-Asian manner, they are largely centered around food (grocery shopping, sharing pork-buns, preparing meals). As gestures make up the bulk of the characters’ interactions, when the teenage dumpling grows sulky and ignores his mother’s attempts to feed him, their physical barriers grow prominent — in the short’s latter half, there is nearly always a wall between them.
The mother’s anguish reaches its height during Bao’s contentious climax — to prevent the dumpling from leaving with his Caucasian girlfriend, the mother consumes him in a single bite. Shi explains that this is fueled from her own mother’s protectiveness — “ I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times!” — and in the end, Shi states that “it was the logical conclusion between possessive person and delicious little dumpling.” The climax is purposefully shocking and articulates an unspoken wish — a yearning for a lack of separation between parent and child, to return to a time before these cultural differences took on a larger presence.
At some point in their lives, I think many immigrant children have had a strained relationship with their parents. Sometimes, it marks a phase that colors a certain time period. Sometimes, it may last a lifetime. Bao reflects a little bit of us all — I watch it and see my mother, who recently sent my younger sister to college. I remember my mother’s sock-in-slippers combination, the scent of freshly-braised pork, the lilting melody of classic Chinese pop songs. I see my grandparents, intently wiping down green-onion stalks and peeling onion skins, single-mindedly focused on providing a meal for me and my sister. I remember avoiding my mother’s eyes, ducking out the door to spend her money only to return home to a saran-wrapped bowl of hóng shāo ròu, uneaten, growing cold. I see my own cultural confusion and guilt, for not doing enough to overcome these language barriers, for growing angry when our shared languages failed, for my own hypocrisy. Sometimes, it feels incredibly heavy — that the culmination of centuries of struggle comes down to me and my sister.
But this is our reality — immigrant families are flawed, and in all its joy and sacrifice and hurt and bone-deep love, Bao succeeds at presenting a nuanced portrayal of the Asian immigrant diaspora. We have existed all along, and if anything, that should be enough for Bao’s story to be represented and accepted on the big screen.
Cindy Rose Chen is a senior at NYU studying Media, Culture, and Communication. Born and raised in California’s Bay Area, she is often three hours behind schedule (read: late).
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