‘The word ‘bao’ has two meanings,’ explains Bao film director Domee Shi. ‘Said one way, it means steamed bun. Said another way, it means a precious treasure.’
Pixar’s new short film Bao can be summarised by this single line. The first film directed by Shi, the Canadian daughter of Chinese immigrants, it explores the strong and sometimes macabre relations between food, family and love.
In the eight-minute short film, which is airing in cinemas ahead of The Incredibles 2, an older Chinese woman makes bao: round, soft Chinese dumplings with flavourful fillings. When one of the dumplings awakens, it becomes a surrogate child, accompanying Mom to tai chi lessons, and eating cakes with her on the bus before entering moody adolescence and getting a girlfriend. As Dumpling prepares to leave home, an angry Mom impulsively swallows him whole. At that moment, her actual son, who looks like Dumpling, appears carrying the same cakes the pair used to eat together. The film ends with the whole clan, new girlfriend included, making bao as a family.
Food is a constant motif in storytelling, and in Bao it makes up a crucial ingredient of the story. Mom brings Dumpling to life out of sheer will and loneliness. In Mom’s world, food and love are one and eating can be used as reward, comfort and punishment. As Dumpling becomes a teenager, she tries to tempt him back to her by cooking a tableful of his favourite foods. When he refuses to join her she eats everything herself, both as a coping mechanism and to attempt to fill the gap inside her that Dumpling’s absence has left her with. The ultimate expression of her love comes when she eats Dumpling whole in an effort to both protect him from the outside world and punish him for seeking an independent life.
Shi used her own relationship with her mother as inspiration for the film. ‘The first ingredient for Bao came from tapping into food, which I loved, and the second ingredient came from using what I knew, which was my own personal experience growing up as an only child,’ she says.
‘Ever since I was born my mum has looked after me like a precious little dumping, watching over me and taking care of me. We were a small immigrant family living in Toronto and my dad worked away a lot, so I spent a lot of my childhood just with my mum, eating together, commuting to work and school together, vacationing together. When I started to grow up she found it hard to let go. She would hold me close and say “oh, I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew where you were at all times.”’
‘She’s the dumpling-making queen and growing up she would cook a lot. Like a lot of parents, food was how she showed her love, and we always had this special connection making dumplings together on weekends or holidays or Chinese new year. That creepy-sweet love of a mum who learns to let go of her little dumpling was the spark that eventually became the heart of this short.’
This ‘creepy-sweet love’ can be found in fairy tales all over the world. From Maurice Sendak’s monsters in bedtime favourite Where The Wild Things Are, who yell to Max that they’ll ‘eat you up – we love you so’, as he sails away in his boat to go home for dinner, to Hansel and Gretel’s edible cottage with windowpanes of clear sugar, built to entice hungry children into a child-loving cannibalistic witch’s oven.
‘I love food folk tales because I find them so cute and strange, like the little gingerbread man or there was an old lady who swallowed a fly,’ Shi says. ‘I was inspired to do a Chinese version of that with Bao. It’s a perfect fit because in Chinese culture, food and family go hand in hand. If you want to say you care about someone, you don’t say “I love you”, you say “have you eaten yet, you look thin, eat more.”’
This isn’t the first time Pixar have explored the relationships between food and humanity. Feast, a Pixar short from 2014, is told solely through the food a stray dog adopted by a man gets fed, using food to comment on greed, class and gender roles. Although the main canine character begins life happily licking cheese from a pile of rubbish, he quickly develops a more sophisticated pallet turning his nose up at his proffered dog food in favour of spaghetti and meatballs. The food represents the ever-more cosmopolitan sensibilities of his city-dwelling owner. Food then acts as a test and a growth medium, culminating in the dog being rewarded for overcoming his rapacity.
Feast reflects and reinforces gender stereotypes, with the man helpless in his eating habits – gorging on crisps, takeout and bacon and eggs, with nary a vegetable in sight – until he meets his girlfriend, a waitress. Immediately, the food changes to brussel sprouts and boxes of salad. While Feast is a nuanced exploration of the role food takes in relationships and how it brings people and animals together, this flawed representation lets it down.
Ratatouille, a feature-length film from 2007, sees a food-obsessed rat become a famous chef and contains vivid scenes of cooking. Remy the rat uses food as his medium to escape his humdrum life as a common rodent, and like Mom in Bao, uses it as a means to connect to others and communicate his care for them. Remy, by his very nature an unwanted pest, adopts food instead of rathood as his cultural identity. Despite being clearly talented, the prejudices of others means that he initially struggles to succeed as a chef and is forced to operate through the human Linguini, physically manipulating him like a marionette into cooking as Remy wishes. Through this, Pixar examines the narrative of race and immigration, which, as critic Sukhdev Sandhu points out, ‘has considerable political resonance in contemporary France.’ The ‘outsider and immigrant’ Remy refuses to be characterised by his species (read race), and by the end of the film has successfully defined himself by his ambitions and dreams of wanting to be a chef. Pixar beautifully expresses this narrative by portraying the increasing French-ness of the food that Remy interacts with, starting with rotten apple cores and ending with confit byaldi, a fanciful variation of ratatouille. Even ratatouille itself represents Remy’s progression from ordinary rat to lauded French chef. The dish is traditional French countryside fare, a cheap dish that originally meant ‘coarse or motley stew’. By the end of the film, it’s been transformed to the more thoughtfully created confit byaldi, a version of the dish where the vegetables are sliced thinly instead of being roughly chopped and are cooked for longer. These subtle undertones are brought to the forefront of the film through Pixar’s use of food as a medium for communication and emotional connection, universal mediums which affect everyone.
‘Everyone in the world loves food and loves to eat, in the same way that everyone can relate to stories about love and family.’
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