Chinese Diasporic Life: A Review of Bao

Shannon Brownlee

California-based Pixar Animation Studio is not, at first glance, a likely producer of Chinese animation. However, Bao (Domee Shi, 2018) proves otherwise (Fig 1).[1]As Disney and Pixar’s opening logos appear, they are accompanied – even eclipsed – by the strings of the guzheng, then pipa and erhu, playing a pentatonic theme. The film’s topic of maternal love is arguably universal. However, the details of the mother-son relationship, from the bonding rituals to the mother’s concern about her son marrying outside his inherited culture, are expressed in a way that never compromises the exploration of Chinese diasporic identity in North America, and specifically in Toronto, Canada. In writer/director/story artist Domee Shi’s words, the film is “dark” and “strange,” but it documents and normalizes Chinese diasporic life from what is clearly an insider’s point of view.[2]Bao demonstrates that cultural specificity and universal accessibility are not mutually exclusive.

Fig 1: a poster of Bao

This “darkness” and “strangeness” are a tribute to both the team’s own courage and Pixar’s established willingness to take risks in such films as the Toy Story series. As Shi says, when she pitched the idea to Pixar, they loved it “because the ending shocked them so much.”[3]Just shy of eightminutes in length, the 3D animatedBao begins with a middle-aged woman making steamed baozi. Her glum expression as she eats turns to astonishment when one of them utters a baby’s cry as she chomps down on it. The bao-shaped head sprouts a nose and a little body of dough, and as Mom lifts the dumpling from the bamboo steamer cradle, he giggles like an infant. In a montage, we see the joys and minor accidents of his childhood: Mom feeds him bao filling, she marks his growing height on the doorframe, she saves him from the dog who has “fetched” him in the park, and she takes him with her to a quintessential Chinatown greengrocer and bakery. They eat baked buns together on the streetcar ride home. He never gets much more than knee height, but soon the signs of adolescent chafing appear. Dumpling joins a soccer game in the park and dents his soft head; Mom slides full length like an action hero between Dumpling and the other boys to protect her child from further harm, butheresents her intervention and rejects the bun she offers him on the streetcar. He becomes sullen at home and prefers to go out with his non-Chinese friends rather than eat the elaborate, home-cooked food she offers him. The breaking point comes when Dumpling brings home a blonde, blue-eyed fiancée: Mom kicks the fiancée out, bars Dumpling’s exit, and in a fit of tearful anger and genuine darkness, she stuffs Dumpling in her mouth and swallows. Immediately horrified, she collapses on the floor in tears, and the lights dim.

This dramatic chapter break also marks the beginning of the more realist movement of the film. Mom sobs on her bed in a darkened room, her husband hanging ineffectually by. Then Dumpling’s silhouette falls across her. The focus blurs, and we realize that her own human son, whose round face and spiked hair give him an uncanny resemblance to Dumpling, has returned home. At first, she will not look at him, but he places a box of baked buns next to her and they soon sit, side by side and wordless, and munch their treats as tears run down both their faces. The final scene echoes the first as dumplings are prepared, but instead of cooking alone, Mom works at the dining room table alongside her husband (who sports a knitted vest with a Canadian maple leaf on it), her son, and his fiancée (who, it turns out, has a natural panache for dumpling-making). During the end credits, 2D sketches capture the family of four and icons of their past and future together: a soccer ball, flip-flops, a rice cooker, and more.

The film is at once widely accessible and deeply rooted in a particular place and experience. Shi, who has worked extensively at Pixar as a storyboard artist, was inspired both narratively and visually by her upbringing: she was born in Chongqing, China, and moved at age two with her parents to Toronto, where there have been significant Chinese communities for more than a century and where, like the son in Bao, Shi grew up as an “overprotected” only child.[4]In order to achieve realism in the central activity of dumpling-making, Shi’s mother visited Pixar to demonstrate the art and act as a visual reference for the animators. The design, too, is exacting. Shi says, “I was excited to show every detail of what a Chinese immigrant home would look like”[5]– including educating non-Asian colleagues about the presence of the toilet paper roll on the coffee table.[6]This specificity reaches beyond the domestic space, and the design of the public spaces certainly has a Proustian effect on this former resident of Toronto. It is evocative rather than literal – the street where Mom goes shopping is fictional, and the iconic CN tower rises up alone rather than as part of a skyline – but the streetcar’s interior, the Chinatown shops, and the slightly dumpy Torontonian neighbourhood architecture are all spot on. The park where Mom does tai chi and where Dumpling learns to love soccer is distinctly reminiscent of Grange Park near the historic Chinatown West.[7]Shi says: “We could have set it anywhere but giving it a real-life location adds a layer of believability and grounds it since the style of the characters are so cartoony. It was a cool homage to my hometown and I’ve never really seen Toronto animated on screen before so it was a good excuse to do that.”[8]The film is profoundly and palpablylocated in the experiences of a community in a specific place.

At the same time, Bao’s visuals speak more broadly to the Chinese diaspora in North America and to influences beyond that. Production included many research trips to San Francisco and Oakland’s Chinatowns, and Chinese-American production designer Rona Liu was crucial to the film for Shi because she “understood the details of a Chinese immigrant household.”[9] This enabled their research to be personal and organic: Shi “raided [her] mom’s closet,” and she and Liu “went back to [their] parents’ houses and took tons of pictures, of the living room, the kitchen, all the little tchotchkes on [their] parents’ televisions, shelves.”[10]Shi’s own influences exceed the Chinese-Canadian axis as well: she “wanted to do a modern fairy tale, like [the American] ‘The Little Gingerbread Man,’ but a Chinese version.”[11]She is influenced by Isao Takahata’s work, especially My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), and she provided the artists with Japanese animation references to help them develop Dumpling’s “organic, squishy, and round” look pivotal to his kawaii appeal.[12] Finally,the use of language both globalizes and localizes. Bao contains no dialogue so that, as Shi says, it can be “as universally understood as possible. By removing language as a barrier, everyone around the world can experience the short in the same way.”[13] However, it develops its theme of the generation gap through written language: while Mom shops at a bilingual bakery and a Chinese-only greengrocer, Dumpling writes “keep out” in English on his bedroom door and has English-language soccer paraphernalia and a hip hop poster in his room. This construction of language is plausibly Canadian but also potentially American, Australian, etc. The appeal of the film is correspondingly broad. Although Petrana Radulovic notes ruefully that many people, “mostly white Americans,” were confused by the film,[14] Shi states that both Asian and non-Asian audiences reported relating to the family dynamics.[15]These multinational effects do not diminish the fact that this film is fundamentally rooted in the Chinese community of Toronto, but they speak to its balance of cultural specificity and generality.

This cultural balancing act is most strikingly but somewhat contradictorily exhibited in the musical score. The composer, Toby Chu, is a Chinese-Americanwho cites classical music, jazz, and world music as his key influences,[16]but he researched Chinese instruments for the soundtrack of Bao.[17]The music is a work of cultural fusion, with a blend of Western orchestral and Chinese instruments (the yangqin and dizi in addition to the guzheng, pipa, and erhu), a Chinese pentatonic scale in the melody, and a Western, eight-note scale providing the harmony. Shi’s logic for this is sound: “I told [Chu] that I wanted to incorporate Eastern and Western instruments into the score. I really wanted it to be a blend, just like how the story is a Chinese immigrant story that takes place in Toronto.”[18]However, key moments in the score construct the European orchestral instruments as the naturalized, unmediated bearers of emotion, which alienates the audience from the Chinese instruments. Leading up to the film’s most intense narrative event of literal consumption, Dumpling prepares to leave the house but Mom kicks his fiancée out and slams the door, trapping him in. The Chinese instruments fall away entirely for the first time in the film, and the musical theme is rendered by piano and Western string instruments alone. Chu states that this absence of Chinese instruments “draws attention to this moment between Mom and Dumpling” as a very “honest”point that represents “her love for him and not wanting him to leave.”[19]This use of Western sound elements to represent maternal love may suggest that mother-son love is indeed transnational and not specifically Chinese – or it may represent Pixar’s Western priorities and lack of faith that Chinese instruments could speak deeply enough to a transnational audience or an audience presumed to be predominantly white.

As the moment of consumption approaches, Chinese instruments return, and Chu explains that the soaring prominence of the erhu at the plot twist is meant to mitigate the darkness of the act.[20]There is no music again until the human son enters Mom’s room, at which point piano and Western strings recur. Chu says thatthe Western instruments here reflect the son’s attempts to separate himself from his inherited culture: “you have a lot of immigrant children who try to […] leave their culture behind, they’re kind of trying to find independence from their family.”[21]However, they play over a shot-reverse shot exchange between the two rather than a shot of the son alone, so here Western instruments are used to underline the film’s second most intense emotional beat. As mother and son reconcile and as the family cooks together, the Western and Chinese instruments blend through the end credits.The concept of the East-West music makes sense and is generally well-balanced, but there are these moments of lack of faith in the Chinese instruments that strike a slightly false, Eurocentric note. The music thus plays out – whether deliberately or not – the challenge of blending two cultures in a way that will give equal weight and credibility to each, a challenge that the characters themselves face.

Bao achieves several firsts. Shi was the first woman of any racial identity to direct a Pixar short film and the first solo female director of a Pixar film of any length.[22]It is also Pixar’s first film to be led by an all-female writer-director-producer team.[23]Shi was the first Woman of Colour to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, an honour she shared with Bao’sproducer, Becky Neiman-Cobb. And, while Bao’ssuccess at the Oscars may partly be attributed to the fact that it played before Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, 2018), and was thus seen by more members of the Academy than its competitors,[24]this should not undermine the fact that it led a strong field that included two excellent films by Shi’s fellow Canadians. These are all important firsts, and they ensure that Bao will be remembered. However, we can hope that it will be remembered most warmly for the interplay between the “dark” and “strange” creativity of its story and the groundedness of its representation of Chinese diasporic experience.

[1] The American company’s history of presenting non-American cultures is mostly positive; its track record is considerably superior to that of its parent company, Disney. Its first two forays into settings outside the USA are Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) and Brave (Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, 2012). While Ratatouille was received extremely favourably by the French it represents, Brave is somewhat less successful: according to historian Richard Oram, Brave captures Scotland’s landscape beautifully, but the vision of the “bare, rugged land, inhabited by wild men in kilts,” is a relatively recent stereotype “peddled abroad since Queen Victoria.” (See Laura Barnett, “A Scottish Historian on Brave,” <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/aug/29/scottish-historian-view-brave>, accessed April 12, 2020). On the other hand, Coco (Unkrich and Molina, 2017), which drew substantially on Mexican elements and premiered in Mexico, has been praised by Latinx people both north and south of the border. Bao is also not the first Pixar short to address diasporic experience: Sanjay’s Super Team (Sanjay Patel, 2015) is rooted in Hindu iconography and the director’s own personal experience as a first generation immigrant (See Kevin McFarland, “Pixar’s Sanjay’s Super Team Turns a Real Childhood Into Art,” <https://www.wired.com/2015/11/pixar-sanjays-super-team/>, accessed April 12, 2020). In addition to positive reception by American reviewers, the Hindustan Times and India West reported favourably on Sanjay’s Super Team. (See “Sanjay’s Super Team: US Film Turns Hindu Gods Into Avengers,” <https://www.hindustantimes.com/hollywood/sanjay-s-super-team-us-film-turns-hindu-gods-into-avengers/story-kvmmpTEZECaukalRI0x5cJ.html>, accessed April 12, 2020; Reena Rathore, “Sanjay Patel’s ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ Short Film: Breaking New Ground for Pixar,” <https://www.indiawest.com/entertainment/global/sanjay-patel-s-sanjay-s-super-team-short-film-breaking/article_526d14aa-991f-11e5-ae81-f7f11b7a1cc6.html>, accessed April 12, 2020).

[2] Karen Idelson, “A Mouth-Watering Short,” <https://www.animationmagazine.net/features/domee-shis-pixar-short-bao-satisfies-artistic-appetite/>, accessedApril 4, 2020.

[3] Victoria Ahearn, “Domee Shi on Bringing Her Love of Food to the Screen with Oscar-Nominated ‘Bao,’” The Canadian Press, February 20, 2019.

[4] Sophia Yan, “Bringing A Dumpling To Life: Q&A With Domee Shi, Pixar Director of ‘Bao,’” <https://supchina.com/2018/07/17/qa-with-domee-shi-pixar-director-of-bao/>, accessed April 4, 2020.

[5] Idelson.

[6]Dami Lee, “The Director of Pixar’s Bao on the Challenges of Animating a Living Dumpling,” <https://www.theverge.com/culture/2018/4/24/17270946/pixar-bao-incredibles-2-director-domee-shi-tribeca>, accessed April 4, 2020.  

[7] Toronto has many Chinatowns, and in fact has no single, “original” Chinatown. According to Lai and Leong, two Chinatowns emerged in the early 1900s: one that supported the Qing Emperor Guangxu, and one that supported Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. By the 1920s, the former crumbled and the latter flourished but was largely demolished in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for the building of the new City Hall. This is just one instance of the literal and metaphorical violence Chinese people have endured in Canada. See David Chuenyan Lai and Jack Leong, “Toronto Chinatowns 1878-2012,” Canada Chinatown Series, <http://www.sfu.ca/chinese-canadian-history/Chinatown/Toronto-Chinatown-Bilingual.pdf>, accessed April 12, 2020.

[8]Karon Liu, “Pixar’s New Animated Short Pays Tribute to Moms, Chinese Food and Toronto,” <https://www.thestar.com/life/2018/06/12/pixars-new-animated-short-pays-tribute-to-moms-chinese-food-and-toronto.html>, accessed April 4, 2020. In fact, although Shi may be correct about Toronto not having been represented by large, commercial animation companies like Pixar, the city has featured on the animation screen. For example, Chris Landreth’s Oscar-winning Ryan (2004) is set explicitly in Toronto.

[9] Idelson.

[10]Yan.

[11]Peter Debruge et al., “Toonsters on the Rise,” Variety, May 8, 2018.

[12]Idelson. 

[13]Yan.

[14]Petrana Radulovic, “The Polarized Reactions to Pixar’s ‘Bao’ Are Rooted in Culture,” <https://www.polygon.com/2018/6/26/17505726/pixar-bao-dumpling-short-reactions>, accessed April 4, 2020.

[15]Liu. 

[16]Toby Chu, “Biography,” <http://tobychumusic.com/biography/>, accessed April 4, 2020.

[17]Trevor Perez, “Composer Toby Chu Breaks Down His Own Score From Pixar’s ‘Bao’ Short,” November 12, 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phcruTgPXvk>, accessed April 4, 2020.

[18] Yan. 

[19]Perez.

[20] Perez.

[21] Perez.

[22] In fact, Brenda Chapman was removed from Brave (2012) and replaced by Mark Andrews, although she retained credit for her work and shared the Animated Feature Film Oscar with him. See Ian Failes, “Life After Pixar: An Interview With Brenda Chapman,” <https://www.cartoonbrew.com/animators/life-pixar-interview-brenda-chapman-143232.html>, accessed April 20, 2020.

[23] Ahearn.

[24] “Shorts,” Variety, Feb 4, 2019, p. 25.

Bio:

Shannon Brownlee is an Assistant Professor in the Cinema and Media Studies Program of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. She has presented and written on animation from China, Canada, the USA, and Europe, including articles on LEGO stop-motion in Film Criticismandin Cultural Studies of LEGO: More Than Just Bricks (Eds. Rebecca Hains and Sharon Mazzarella, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

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