Oscar-nominated Pixar short ‘Bao’ tells a story of Asian families, how love comes in the form of food

Hands holding an animated smiling dumpling.
Pixar/Courtesy

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In the summer of 2018, crowds flocked to the theaters for the release of “Incredibles 2,” a long-awaited sequel to a Pixar classic about a white-American family of superheroes. Fans in theaters, however, were surprised with a ground-breaking Pixar short, “Bao.”

Now, while the Incredibles’ movies are without a doubt enthralling, this short was one that Asian Americans knew was coming. Written and directed by Pixar’s first female short film director Domee Shi, “Bao” tells a story of a Chinese mother and her journey through coping with her child growing up and leaving home.

The animated short film is nominated for an Academy Award this year, and if it wins, it will mark another step forward toward diversity in American media, as well as an honored recognition of a predominant immigration culture in this country.

In Asian families, love comes in the form of food — an unspoken truth that “Bao” skillfully exemplifies.

“Food is how your parents show that they love you. … They say it through fussing over you but also cooking for you, making sure you’re always well-fed,” Shi said in an interview with Cineplex. “So what better way to tell this story of a Chinese family than making food as a center focus?”

The film starts with a delectable montage of the mother making dumplings for her family — and as Shi points out, it’s no easy task to make animated raw pork look as delicious as it does in the movie. Making food the center of focus in an animated sphere took months, according to Shi. The effects and art departments worked diligently together to produce shots of a dumpling morphing into a figure, complete with a face and a body.

“I wanted to explore the relationship between this overprotective parent and this child using this dumpling as a metaphor for this relationship,” Shi said.

You can tell, in the introduction scene, that the two parents are rather somber, a hint at the sadness that many immigrant parents face when their children leave home. As author Petrana Radulovic writes, the movie emphasizes an immigrant culture in which “staying with one’s parents after 18 is not only normal but expected.”

While I myself am not Chinese American, I completely related to the idea of immigrant parents feeling lost without having their kids to feed at home. Whenever I visit my parents, who live close by, I am sure to return home with bags of groceries and homemade Indian food. As Shi said, it’s how parents show their love.

This is why “Bao” means so much to Asian Americans, eliciting a visceral reaction in theaters across the United States.

Pixar has not always been known for valuing diversity, both along the lines of gender and race. In 2012, Pixar fired Brenda Chapman, the only woman to have directed one of its 19 movies, according to W Magazine. And in 2017, the company came under fire after Rashida Jones published a statement explaining that she left Pixar because there is “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”

So, the production of “Bao” and the platform that Shi was given as a woman of color mark a distinct step in the right direction. After joining Pixar straight out of school, Shi worked as a story artist on films such as “Inside Out” and “Incredibles 2.”

She pitched the idea of “Bao” to Pete Docter, the director of “Inside Out,” and received an unexpected, overwhelmingly positive response. From there, “Bao” was greenlit for production in 2015.

Reflecting on the success of “Bao,” Shi said in the interview with Cineplex that she believes productions such as “Coco” and short film “Sanjay’s Super Team” paved the way for “Bao.” These steps in expanding Pixar’s diversity gave her the platform to take off on her idea.

“I pitched two ideas along with Bao, not knowing if Pixar would ever go for an idea this weird but also this culturally specific, but those were the reasons they liked it,” Shi said. “I think they’ve really come to embrace, to really value stories from different backgrounds.”

Thus, we have a piece that celebrates Chinese culture, a film that marks progress for womxn creatives in Pixar, and an homage to how, for Asian families, the food we share marks the love in our hearts.

Malini Ramaiyer covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @malinisramaiyer.