If you’ve seen Incredibles 2 in the cinema, you will probably also have watched the Pixar short film Bao that precedes it.
In Chinese cuisine, bao are steamed meat or vegetable dumplings. Bao the film tells the story of a Chinese-Canadian woman who gets a second chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings comes to life. The film follows mother and dumpling son as they bond but then grow apart, despite her best efforts to cling on. Finally, as he introduces his fiancée, his mother, desperate to prevent him leaving, eats him whole.
Only then do we learn the dumpling is really a metaphor for her grown-up son. And the act of eating him represents the lengths she will go to as an (over)protective mother.
Mother and son reconnect over a box of pork buns – an old childhood treat – healing the rift between them. Finally, we see the pair and his fiancée making bao together at the kitchen table.
Bao, me and my mother
What many people see in Bao is a poignant allegory about how food and family are intertwined at the heart of Asian life. As such, the representation of a food item as a child works particularly well when framed in this cultural context.
What I saw, though, was far more personal. I saw me and my own relationship with my mother in microcosm.
Bao touches on universal themes such as empty nest syndrome, teenage rebellion and the difficulty of allowing a grown-up child to fly the nest. However, particular elements really resonated with my experiences. Like the boy in the film, I’m the son of Asian immigrants (Malaysian Chinese in my case). Like him, I grew up in a multi-racial environment and developed a cross-cultural mix of values and experiences. And finally, I also fell in love with and married a white girl, who openly embraced my heritage.
As well as reflecting me, the film also echoes my relationship with my mother. I recognise that streak of overprotectiveness and how I have always rebelled against it. It’s a common trait among Asian mothers. There’s a fine line between being helpful and being smothering. Suffice to say we’ve never agreed on where that line is. We never will. Both of us are right, and yet neither of us are.
Asian customs often revolve around food, in many ways more so than in Western cultures, which are more status-driven and materialistic. Chinese New Year (like Thanksgiving or Christmas) is a time when families travel home to celebrate together over a banquet meal. But the traditions extend beyond that. Food offerings are made to the gods. Tea ceremonies are a sign of respect between elders and juniors. In Bao, the mother’s innate response to the growing gulf with her son is to prepare a huge feast. When he snubs her, it’s more than rebellion; it’s a sign of disrespect.
My mum’s like that too. She always brings a car full of groceries when she comes to visit us. Holidays and day trips are planned around what and where they will eat. And she will happily spend hours in the kitchen preparing several different dishes for dinner. There’s nothing she likes more than to see us all huddled round the table eating more than we thought was humanly possible. Food is at the centre of her world; it’s what brings her the greatest day-to-day pleasure.
I’ve always known that food is important to my mother. But, to my shame, it’s only been recently that I’ve fully appreciated the wider cultural and symbolic significance of her actions. Food is how she expresses love.
Finally, a non-stereotypical story about Asians
Many writers have noted Bao‘s polarising effect on cinema audiences, with reactions frequently differing along racial lines. In large part, that’s because it is so different and unique: an authentic story about Asian culture and everyday life.
As it did with me, the story resonates with Asians who recognise both the wider themes and the little details lovingly woven in throughout the film. Some white Americans, however, have had a harder time understanding it. One viewer called it “the most confusing ten minutes of my life” in a tweet that went viral and drew thousands of derisory responses.
It’s easy to laugh at the cultural insularity of others but a historic diet of films and TV depicting Asians as stereotypes hasn’t helped. For decades, Chinese actors were either martial arts heroes (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan) or villains (any number of James Bond or other action films). Asians are rarely high-flying businessmen (unless they’re linked to the Triads or Yakuza) but they’re often convenience store owners. And so on.
So is it any wonder that a significant minority of white cinemagoers can’t understand why Bao resonates with Asians? Many of them have never been given a true window into Asian culture from which to learn.
It also surprises me how many people have struggled to grasp the metaphor of dumpling-as-son. It’s not that difficult to understand, is it? After all, we regularly anthropomorphise animals, imbuing them with human characteristics. Turtles with ninja skills. A kindly, giant yellow bird in a New York neighbourhood. A small bear from darkest Peru with impeccable manners, a penchant for marmalade and a hard stare. So what’s the problem here? Is it the metaphor itself? Or the fact that it is an Asian metaphor? Who knows?
Either way, Bao is a boundary-breaking film. It’s the first Pixar short directed by a woman (and an Asian one, Domee Shi, at that). And finally – finally – we have a story that centres on Asian characters without resorting to outmoded clichés.
Cultural touchpoints aside, it’s just a very good little film. That’s worth celebrating in my book. Even if some people will never get it.
If you haven’t seen Bao yet, here’s an abbreviated version.