Bao as a Symbol of Chinese Family Love
by Yuejia Zhang
The short film Bao (2018), directed by Domee Shi and produced by Pixar Animation Studios, portrays the essence of Chinese family love through the lens of an elder Chinese woman's relationship with a live streamed bun (baozi) that she nurtures as her own child.
The woman’s second experience of motherhood is depicted as a dream. The lighting and color undergo a transformation after the little Bao comes to life, shifting from a cold tone to a warm one. Perhaps it is the interpersonal struggle of a Chinese immigrant mom in her relationship with her Chinese-Canadian son that gives rise to these dreams. It differs from her husband's nonchalant and carefree reaction when he eats the other buns. Seeing the Bao come alive, representing a baby, adds a spark to her otherwise bland and repetitive life as an empty-nest mother at home.
The film’s middle part revolves around the growth of Bao from a boy into a rebellious young adult. This transformation can be seen in Bao’s reaction to the Chinese barbecue pork bun (Cha siu bao). As a young boy, Bao picks Cha siu bao from the bakery and happily eats it with his mother. However, as an adolescent, when his mother prevents him from playing soccer, because it is too dangerous, he rejects the Cha siu baoshe offers. The mother is being over-protective of him. He wants the freedom to play and encounter risks rather than staying intact and forever protected by the mother.
The climax of the film occurs when the mother can no longer bear Bao leaving home with a blonde girl and completely loses control of herself. With the blonde girl signifying the Canadian culture, Bao’s action implies his choice to blend in with the western culture instead of the Chinese. With complex feelings of loss and powerlessness, the mother shockingly eats Bao. The act of eating Bao breaks the mother’s dream and leaves her with the bitter reality that her real son has left her. It shows the disastrous consequence of her desperation to keep Bao to herself. This scene represents a culturally significant clash between the smothering mother and the independent child. Traditional Chinese parents center around their children, giving them the best while having to stay in control of every bit and piece of their lives. When this parenthood collides with the more independent, free-spirited western life philosophy, neither the mother nor the child finds solace.
Upon waking from the dream, the real son returns and offers Cha siu bao to the mother as the return of his love. When they eat together, tears slide down their cheeks, symbolizing the resolution of the conflict. In real life, the mother didn’t consume the son: she let him go instead, and the son understood his mother’s love. Everything finally makes sense as they eat their Cha siu bao in silence.
In Bao, food is a vehicle for implicitly expressing love, especially maternal love. It is subtle and unassuming, yet offering and sharing food reveals the intimate affection between mother and child. In addition, Food is also a vehicle for retaining cultural ties. As a critical element in cultural heritage, traditional foods connect individuals to their cultural roots and remind them of their cross-cultural identity.
Bao. Dir. Domee Shi. Pixar Animation Studios, 2018.