The Incredibles 2
Last night I went to the movies, fully prepared to be blown out of my seat by the long-awaited Incredibles 2. After 14 years, Disney-Pixar finally got it together and produced the sequel. Without spoiling the movie, I’ll tell you this: it exceeded expectations. But this isn’t about The Incredibles 2. This is about the film’s opening act, the short film Bao.
If you haven’t seen it yet, beware. There are spoilers ahead.
On the short film, Bao
Bao tells the story of a Chinese-Canadian mother dealing with the emotions that come with her now-empty nest. The poignant film packs a hard punch to the emotional gut with no dialogue in just seven minutes by getting one big thing right: it shows, rather than tells. The characters in the story, particularly the mother, convey their personalities and inner thoughts through their actions. As Chekhov, kinda sorta said,
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Bao director, Domee Shi, gets it. Shi invited her own mother to act as a cultural consultant for the film; she taught the crew how to make bao buns from scratch. The lesson was documented so animators could accurately portray the process.
So let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the film itself.
Bao begins innocently enough, with the mother lovingly making bao buns and serving them to her husband. He pops three in his mouth and bounces out the door. She is left alone to finish her meal. Let’s pause for analysis here. In the first minute (or so), Shi has loaded us with information about this household. She is loving, she cooks (and seems to enjoy it), and she gets lonely when her husband leaves. Her husband enjoys the meal but mostly watches TV until he leaves for work. In the first minute– I repeat, minute– the main character is fleshed out enough for me to empathize with her when her husband leaves the house. Brilliant.
She looks down to take her next bite, and the last a bao bun is crying. I’m thinking, what the hell? This is getting weird, but okay, let’s do it. It sprouts arms and legs, then quickly turns into her little baby. The pace picks up here, and we see her and the creepy bao baby grow closer and closer. She feeds him, bathes him, measures his height. Shi uses these universal, relatable experiences to illustrate their mother-son relationship. Things are going swimmingly until the bao baby reaches the major pillars of adolescence. He gets glasses, he wants to play soccer, he grows a goatee. She’s telling us that he yearns for a social life and distance from his mother. He kinda starts acting like a dick. He goes out for an evening and comes back engaged– to a white girl!
Lets pause again for analysis. How did we get here? Everything was so cute and sweet, and now the bao baby is breaking his mother’s heart. But I get it. Shi is capturing a deeply personal and emotional aspect of the Asian immigrant experience: the fight between old and new culture. All children spend a period of time distancing themselves from their parents, but for children of immigrants, it can be more than that. For some, it becomes rejecting our culture to foster a social life, as we see the bao baby reject his home-cooked meal.
As the bao baby’s mother tries to stop him from moving out with his new fianceé, conflict peaks. In order to keep him, she does the unthinkable. She eats him. Then she cries. It’s heartbreaking. Thank god she wakes up from this metaphoric nightmare for us to find out the bao bun only represents her actual son.
He brings her the pastries from his childhood, and they sit together and cry while they eat. The white girl makes some bomb-ass bao buns. Their relationship is restored. I’m bawling in my seat.
Bao successfully illustrates the delicate balance between distance and rejection that exists between immigrant parents and their children. Shi dances on our heartstrings, bringing the mother-child relationship to center stage. As the first female short film director in Pixar history, Shi stole the show.