The polarized reactions to Pixar’s ‘Bao’ are rooted in culture

Disney Pixar

Update (Dec. 17): Watch “Bao” online this week on Pixar’s YouTube channel.

Premiering before the Incredibles 2,Bao” is the first Pixar short film directed by a woman, Domee Shi, who was inspired by her childhood as the daughter of Chinese immigrants in Canada. The short follows a Chinese-Canadian mother who struggles with empty-nest syndrome, but earns a second chance at parenthood when one of her dumplings comes alive. Surprisingly, the ending of “Bao” has proved to be one of the more controversial ones in Pixar’s long history of animated shorts.

The mother nurtures the baby dumpling as it grows up. At first, their relationship is harmonious; she dotes on the dumpling and they share treats on the way home from the market. But as the bao grows up, distance strains their relationship. It acts out, refuses her treats on the bus, leaves the house late at night.

[Ed. Note: The following contains spoilers for “Bao.”]

Eventually, the dumpling grows up and it wants to leave the house. The mother doesn’t want to accept this and the two get into an argument.

In an act of desperation, the mother grabs and eats her dumpling.

Moments later, it becomes clear that her relationship with the bao is reflecting another in her life: that of her and her son. He returns home and the two share a tender moment and share the same treats. Later, they make dumplings with his fiancée.

It’s left up to the viewer whether the eating moment represented a real-life argument gone wrong, a mother’s attempt to protect her son and keep him at home, or the acceptance that there was no way she could’ve kept her son safe without losing him. But the scene is an emotionally raw moment that resonated deeply to children of Asian immigrants — myself included.

As the daughter of two immigrants, both from cultures where staying with one’s parents after 18 is not only normal but expected, the short struck something deep inside of me. My Chinese mother used to send me back to college with a cooler full of frozen dumplings. In my adolescence, we clashed much like the characters in the short. My mother had her frustrations with the differences between American culture and her own.

We’ve mended the gaps in our relationship, but I see the pattern repeating with my younger siblings who strain for the freedom promised in American culture, while growing up in an environment centered around familial tradition. I moved out after college, and while that was something I had yearned for most of my teenage years, the stark reality of not being just a bus ride away hit me fast. In high school, I dreamed of moving somewhere like California or Seattle, and my mom would pout and tell me that travel would be hard and that I should stay near; I didn’t move as far away as California, but sometimes I wish I could be closer.

During the pivotal moment of “Bao,” I started to sob in the theater.

I’m not the only one who was deeply touched by this short. Before I even saw “Bao,” I had a Chinese friend message me from the theater about the emotional punch. Other friends tweeted about how they teared up in the movie theatre. People across social media shared their own experiences and how the short resonated with them.

There’s an expectation in many Asian communities for children to stay with their families until marriage, a lifestyle choice that is often sharply juxtaposed with the Westernized notion of children leaving the house at 18 and not coming back. It’s a struggle of two cultural norms that children of immigrants from all backgrounds often have to face, and seeing it on screen was an emotional experience for many.

But while many like myself were tearing up in the theater, struck hard by a nuanced parental relationship, others were laughing or shrieking out of confusion.

Searching for reactions to “Bao” on social media uncovers a common, less enthusiastic reaction to the short: Huh? From Twitter threads and replies to Facebook comments, people (mostly white Americans) expressed confusion, ranging from the mild “my family was the only one laughing!” to more aggressive “wtf was that?”

I shared a clip of the short with my mother, one where director Domee Shi talks about her own mom and dumpling making, and while my mother spoke excitedly at first (“Wow! A Chinese woman directing!”), her tone sharply shifted when she saw the comments.

“I guess it’s not that good,” she said.

When people don’t get a cameo at the end of a Marvel movie, they Google it for better understanding (trust us on that one). Yet more often than one might expect, when people are confronted with a particular cultural experience that they don’t get, the confusion rarely seems to turn into curiosity. Instead, it becomes a source of bewildered judgment. Vocal, bewildered judgment.

Just as a pocket of the internet can summon ire over the supposed homogeneity of animation, another can implicitly fear the diversification of characters and traditions brought to life by the medium. Not understanding media — be it literature, film, art, or music — is not a bad thing. But the employment of a white, mostly male perspective throughout most of American movie history means audiences have been weaned to expect one set of values for years. When something outside that demographic crosses moviegoers’ paths, so often people react like a mistake’s been made, like they’ve been provoked. Then they bypass Google for Twitter.

It’s jarring to be moved to quiet tears in a theater when the people around you are laughing, to see comments on social media posts about how “dumb” the short was when all you want to do is share it with your mother.

There is comfort, however, in seeing the reactions of those who did relate to it — whether by sharing their own experiences or coming to the defense of the film in a comment thread. It is especially nice to see those who might not have been directly impacted by the experiences in the short, but can still understand what it meant.

Even without all the cultural nuances and intricacies, “Bao” is about growing up. While the experiences depicted may be specific to Chinese culture, the themes are universal if viewers know how step outside their own perspective. “Bao” is especially fitting for me. I saw the first Incredibles at age 9, with my family and we headed back home chattering in the car. At 22, I saw The Incredibles 2 without my family, in a city far away from them. Seeing “Bao” before the film tied it all together in a satisfying way.

Correction: The director of “Bao” is named Domee Shi, not Domme Shi. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.

Comments

Just as a pocket of the internet can summon ire over the supposed homogeny of animation, another can implicitly fear the diversification of characters and traditions brought to life by the medium.

This is very diplomatic of you, but we all know that it’s the same pocket.

It’s generous to even call those groups ‘pockets’ when we know they’re more like abscesses

bao kind of proves that the cultural literacy of the west is pretty limited and the urge to react before understanding is too strong

"The people need to know that I don’t know what’s going on!"

Ha! Spot on! It’s that ever growing subset of Americans that are almost like they are proud of their ignorance.

Ever growing? Lol hasn’t that been a negative stereotype about Americans for decades now? Can’t find Canada on the map and all that

I’d rather be ignorant over being petty and arrogant, that’s for sure.

I read it as wanting validation.

A show worth checking out is David Chang’s Ugly Delicious on Netflix, specifically the episode Fried Rice. It deals with a lot of the racial and cultural undertones around Chinese immigrants and food. There is a part where non-Asian Americans are all giving their two cents about MSG and how bad it is and oh those sneaky Chinese and oh won’t someone think of the children but have zero idea there’s more MSG added to western snack food than any plate of lemon chicken. Some of the comments are just bizarre. My Chinese wife said at one point "are these normal people or did they get off the wrong bus?"

It’s kinda amazing how some people will get on a global broadcast and boast about how they just don’t get those other guys as if it’s some sort of endorsement for their own superiority via stupidity. It’s really weird.

Doritos are basically 80% MSG.

Hell, Parmesan cheese is full of MSG naturally, that’s why it tastes so good.

MSG being bad for you is a myth.

No shit

If I remember correctly, some people do have a sensitivity to it that can cause headaches, upset stomach, etc., but this is relatively uncommon. For most people, there is no issue.

While an aversion to msg is sort of understandable (I personally don’t get it, same as worrying about gluten when you aren’t allergic imo), but the experience I’ve seen is there are occasionally people who claim they can’t eat at Chinese restaurants because the msg, but still eat chips and other food that full of it without issue. Its like a rascist stereotype driven placebo allergy..

200% upvote for Ugly Delicious. I’m a lame white chick and learned a lot about other experiences. I often think back to Chang pointing out that the prices we expect of Asian and Mexican dishes is hilarious given how labor intensive they are. There’s a lot of food out there that costs more and takes a helluva lot less work.

The west is not as literate about the other cultures as the other cultures are of theirs, because Hollywood (obviously this is reductive, hold your horses) is where the movies everyone watches are made. Imagine Hollywood was in Shanghai, it’d be a different story then. Wouldn’t western kids learn about Chinese values and culture if they grew up watching movies made by Chinese Nora Ephron and Chinese Spielberg? And how would the Asian kids learn about western values if they virtually never exposed to the western media? I’m Asian by the way.

yes, i know all of this. but that isn’t the story

You are right. I was replying to the comment above mine, not the story.

The cultural literacy of the whole world is pretty limited.

When you grow an individualistic culture, you get an egocentric culture. By displacing the community values, you only have personal and family values, thus egocentric values thrive. When it’s about my culture, my superheroes, there’s curiosity. When it’s about an other, there’s no curiosity to know more, it is outside myself.

When there’s a diversefication of voices, it means that my voice may not be the hegemony in the future. There’s less space for my voices because it does not have all the space.

I think it proves that Americans are expecting a Pixar short featuring a cute character to end with a cute resolution instead of one where the cute character is killed by its mother. To declare everyone is ‘cultural illiterate’ over this, is massively stupid. You are not superior to people like you think, quite the opposite.

Don’t most people, when they run across something they don’t understand, consider it stupid? Like my 8 year old.

My kid liked the Incredibles 2, but never mentioned this. Neither did Grandma.

I’m glad it had meaning for you. Usually the shorts before the Pixar movies are waaaaay to long and irrelevant.

You must understand though, those people who mocked it, paid to see the Incredibles and weren’t there for the short. So having to sit through something they didn’t understand and didn’t come to see, bothers them.

Just like opening acts at a concert.

that’s still immature

and dumb

Why do people care so much? Not everyone is going to get or enjoy every single thing. If this speaks to you, great. If it does not, that’s ok too. the importance of Ava Duverny’s Wrinkle in Time is not that it’s a blockbuster directed by a black woman, but that it’s a blockbuster, directed by a black woman, that BOMBED, and yet she’ll direct another big film despite that. She’ll get a second chance.

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