As is Pixar tradition, there’s an adorable (and yummy) animated short preceding The Incredibles 2: the appetizing Bao directed by Domee Shi, the first woman to direct a Pixar movie. But since the release of Bao, Shi’s film and its culturally specific take on empty nest syndrome has left audiences either emotionally in awe or flat-out confused and dismissive of a very authentic human experience.
Within a week, Bao has transformed from being a cinematic summer surprise to a Rorschach test that reveals one’s ability to grasp universal themes from a non-white, non-American point of view.
Spoilers for the Pixar short Bao are ahead.
In Bao, a lonely Chinese immigrant woman gets a second chance at motherhood when a baby dumpling magically springs to life. As the dumpling grows up, its relationship with the mother is strained until one day when the dumpling moves out with its white (maybe from New Jersey?) fiancé. Refusing to let her baby go, the mother eats the dumpling in one horrifying gulp.
In a “twist,” the film then reveals the mother experienced a rift with her very human son, who actually did move away. The film ends with the two reconciling over pork buns, their first step to rebuilding their relationship.
Although a uniquely Chinese immigrant story told by a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker — the authenticity is in the details, like the tin foil over stove burners — the film resonates beyond racial boundaries through its depiction of loneliness, children coming of age, and the motherly comfort of home-cooked meals.
“The story was loosely inspired by my own life growing up as an only child to my two Chinese parents,” Shi told Eater about her film. “They always treated me like this precious little dumpling, always making sure I was safe and never wandered too far. And when it was time for me to leave the nest, it was hard for them to let go.”
But not everyone seems to get it. The hubbub began last Saturday, the second weekend of the theatrical run for Incredibles 2, when a white woman from Iowa tweeted that Bao was “the most confusing 10 minutes of my life.” Her message has since been retweeted over 59,000 times and “liked” over 135,000 times. And it wasn’t the only tweet to express confusion over sentient dumplings and cannibal mothers.
Many moviegoers are, indeed, baffled by Bao. Some first-person accounts on Twitter even allege the film has been the subject of mockery by audiences, or white audiences wondering out loud if the characters are Japanese.
This response to Bao from a mostly white, Western audience is a microcosm for an irritation long felt by Asian audiences who feel underrepresented, even invisible, in Hollywood movies.
“An Essential Experience”
Although many non-Asian audiences have also expressed adoration for Bao, the film feels like it’s reaching out to second-generation children of Asian immigrants in particular. While the film has universal themes, it’s Bao’s “Asian-ness” that resonates on a deeply intimate level.
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“I instantly felt at home in the opening scene inside the mother’s kitchen, which was adorned with pieces of my own childhood,” wrote Inkoo Kang for Slate, mentioning the film’s CGI-rendered props like the “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,” Kang added.
Nancy Wang Yuen, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at Biola University, also saw and loved Bao.
“It’s funny,” Yuen tells Inverse. “It captures the suffocation that Chinese children feel from their parents.”
Yuen has devoted much of her career to the study of pop culture, race, and gender representation. Her 2016 book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism explored the structural barriers that exist for actors of color (but absent for white actors) in the film and TV industry. In 2018, Yuen co-authored a study that applied hard, concrete data to the absence of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders on mainstream American television.
Of the dismissal and “confusion” of Bao by non-Asian audiences, Yuen says it can feel like an erasure of existence for audiences who connected with the film.
“It taps into the racism and the emotional repercussions of growing up in a society where you feel like an outsider,” she says. “When you have a film that is so meaningful to a group that’s underrepresented, and somebody dismisses it, there’s this reaction.”
To put it another way: “It makes Asian-Americans feel, ‘Am I confusing to you?’”
Western Individualism and Eastern Collectivism
Based on how audiences respond to Bao, it’s telling evidence of that person’s understanding of differing cultural definitions in how families function.
Western American society — rooted in capitalism and a cultural heritage of independence and imperialism — generally leans individualistic, in which citizens strive to make something of themselves, by themselves.
“Most of these stories we see in Hollywood support that idea,” Yuen says. “Hence why something like Bao is disconcerting, because it comes from a different idea, that keeping families together is a value.”
But most societies around the world, including many Asian ethnic groups, are collectivistic. In other words, families seek to thrive as a group, whereas individualist societies tend to raise the young to survive on their own.
“In Chinese families, your identity is collective. It isn’t individualistic,” Yuen says. “That is something that is unfamiliar to perhaps US society, but a lot of immigrant families could relate to that.”
“A Bit of Violence With Love”
As for why the mother eats the dumpling, Yuen says the metaphor is meant to be a little jarring, if also funny for reasons other than cartoonish cannibalism.
“There’s this kind of suffocation,” Yuen says about the parent-child dynamic in Asian families. “Literally eating the bao, it’s a metaphor for ‘I don’t want you to leave!’ It’s a bit of violence with love.” She theorizes that anyone confused by the “violence” of dumpling-munching may not grasp the concept of families “where love is all consuming and suffocating.”
Yuen calls Bao “essential” for understanding differences regarding universal truths across ethnic boundaries. Because even with the extremely specific, and extremely authentic, elements of an immigrant culture, Bao is still a story about family.
“It is an essential experience for many Americans,” Yuen says. “If you’re confused, you should ask rather than dismiss it.”
Bao is now playing in theaters with Incredibles 2.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article described “doughnuts” as the food the characters reconcile over, not pork buns. This article reflects this change.