I have a ritual for watching Pixar shorts. I cross my arms, grit my teeth, and wait for the onslaught of emotional manipulations that now operate like clockwork to pass. Perhaps my resistance to these CGI vignettes places me in the minority—they’ve won a combined four Oscars and more than a dozen nominations, after all—but for this adult, they’ve always felt too repetitive and too unchallenging to earn my tears.
So I didn’t expect the ones that streamed down my face at the end of Bao, the short that precedes Incredibles 2. And that’s a credit not just to Pixar’s willingness to finally tell a more grown-up story, but also the eight-minute featurette’s many culturally specific details—some of which may not register with non-Asian audiences but will deepen the experience for many filmgoers of Asian descent.
Part fairy tale, part immigrant story, Bao is directed by Domee Shi, who was born in China, raised in Toronto, and also happens to be the first female helmer of a Pixar short. Like 2015’s Sanjay’s Super Team, which introduced The Good Dinosaur, Bao presents a cultural clash between a (seeming) immigrant parent and a more Americanized child. In this case, that child just happens to be a sentient steamed bun. The bun’s human mother, who spends many of her days cooking and cleaning at home, is delighted when one of her stuffed creations emerges from her bamboo steamer with eyes, a mouth, and four healthy limbs. She subsequently devotes her existence to raising her bread-child.
What follows resembles the famous “married life” montage from Up, except in place of a husband and wife, we follow a mother and her rebellious snack. (The spoilers start here.) As the dumpling grows older, he’s tempted by life beyond what his mother imagined for him: soccer instead of tai chi, beers instead of his fellow Chinese buns, hanging out with friends instead of spending time with her. When he shows up at her doorstep with a blonde fiancée, his mother finally decides enough is enough: She makes him choose between his mom and his girlfriend. When he chooses romance (of course!), the mother decides that desperate times call for desperate measures: To keep her child with her, she eats him whole.
By now, the viewer has likely begun to suspect that this Pixar short isn’t quite what it seems. And when the mother realizes what she’s done and wipes her own tears from her face, her son comes back into focus, and this time he’s a fully grown human, proffering his mom the Chinese bread he’d rejected as a teenager. They eat it together, and in the final scene, the family is intact and increased, the mother making baos alongside her son and daughter-in-law.
While I appreciate what Sanjay’s Super Team did in bridging the gap between American and Indian cultures, I’d also argue that Bao is the best Pixar short in several years because of the qualities that distinguish it from its predecessors: its relative scope and darkness, and its comparatively naturalistic look, as well as its cultural specificities.
I’m not Chinese, but I instantly felt at home in the opening scene inside the mother’s kitchen, which was adorned with pieces of my own childhood in Los Angeles’ Koreatown: an old-fashioned rice cooker, an Asian-language calendar, and the hum of a radio in the native tongue. The bao’s later rebellion was familiar too, for painful reasons. All children go through a period of distancing themselves from their parents, but that process for many children of immigrants involves rejecting aspects of the culture that they’d grown up with. And while a greater appreciation of parental dedication is pretty much a universal experience (cf. Lady Bird), that realization can be more fraught for immigrants’ children, whose parents have often sacrificed an unknowable amount of themselves for the sake of their children’s futures (cf. The Joy Luck Club, the “Parents” episode of Master of None). As film critic Alison Willmore aptly noted on Twitter, Bao is a “child-of-an-Asian-immigrant guilt bomb of … devastating effectiveness.”
There are smaller cultural details in Bao to treasure too. I loved the moles that dotted the mother’s face, which humanized her at a time when Asian women are once again exoticized, this time as alien robobeauties with plastic-perfect skin. It made me homesick to see the mother’s sun visor, the bao’s shrimp chips, even the dad’s uncontested refusal to help cook the family’s meals. The mother’s it’s-her-or-me ultimatum seemed ripped from any number of East Asian soap operas, and the genuine but somewhat condescending delight at the white daughter-in-law’s ability to get something Chinese right (in this case, making baos) was a scene I’ve seen too many times in real life. And while not every Asian person has small eyes, it was exciting to see Pixar experiment with a character design that couldn’t be reduced to “slap some giant eyes on an inanimate object” and aestheticize different types of faces.
It’s worth noting that, unlike Pixar’s other “diverse” offerings (Sanjay’s Super Team and Coco, which takes place outside of an American or immigrant context), Bao isn’t about rediscovering one’s roots. Rather, it’s about a mother and son each learning the same lesson in different ways—a lesson many Asian Americans are probably familiar with: Separation isn’t rejection, and independence can still include family.