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.

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