Review: Bao (2018)
Bao is a short film by Domee Shi, which debuted at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
Through Shi’s reflection of her own experiences as a Chinese woman, Bao explores two coalescent central elements: the role of a mother and the role of food. The opening shot is of a floured chopping board as two hands roll dough with dexterity, then fast cuts take us through the process of making her bao buns: shaping, more rolling, filling, folding and twisting – you immediately know the character has made these hundreds of times before. From lettuce leaves to steamed dough, the level of detail in the animation of all the different food textures is excellent, and as the skilled home cook takes a moment for a breather out of her window and the title appears, Toronto’s iconic CN Tower is visible in the background, placing the viewer geographically.
What happens next is slightly surreal, but not totally out of place for a Pixar film. After her partner makes a swift exit to work after scoffing his breakfast, a remaining bao bun starts crying like a baby and limbs pop out of its tiny round body. Following a brief moment of shock (if it were real life, it would be a disproportionate amount of time to deal with this bizarre occurrence, but it’s a short Pixar film so for the sake of your viewing enjoyment, just accept it and embrace the metaphor), the mother holds baby bao in her hands and the relationship between the little squish and its mum plays out in a montage so wholesome you’ll never look at a steamed bun in the same way again.
The role of a mother is illustrated beautifully and considering the time constraints, the snapshot of motherhood encompasses a range of moments and rites of passage - special, little things like pencilling height measurements on the wall, riding the bus together and picking out treats, all the way through to teen strops and slamming the fridge door in a pathetic act of rebellion. We see the mum facilitating their child’s growth and begrudgingly allowing her little dumpling to become independent, though to say she is an overprotective parent is quite the understatement.
In Bao, food is portrayed as a source of comfort, a source of indulgence, a source of purpose and daily structure, and the feeding of others is a way to mend waning relationships or to relieve tension. It’s a huge part of the mother’s identity, which is undoubtedly the case for parents – and people generally – across the world. No matter where you are living, food can transport you to different times and places. Food is always there, even when people aren't.
The score of Bao provides pace, and ultimately it emotionally shapes the film, driving the story forward while sonically combining culture with the narrative. A returning refrain – which consists of a stunning arrangement and a memorable ballad-like melody – reappears when there is cooking or food present and sound is just as powerful as the visuals, especially when paired with new contexts later on in the short. The use of traditional Chinese instruments adds an extra layer of authenticity to the story and, in true Pixar style, the music pulls at the heartstrings at just the right moments.
There are many reasons to love Bao. In under eight minutes, you are taken on an emotional and cultural journey which is deeply affecting. Domee Shi’s story about a Chinese family living in Canada makes remarkable strides in the way that it represents diverse communities and interracial relationships. It transcends geographical barriers because every mother knows (or will know) what it feels like when their children leave home.
Not only the content is progressive, though. Bao also shattered industry records in both its production and reception with Shi becoming the first woman in Pixar’s 32-year history to direct a short film at the studio, then going on to be the first woman of colour to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Though this film is short, its influence and impact is mighty.
Verdict: Jarring, tender, sweet. Domee Shi has put as much care into making this film as the mother in it cares for her son... And that's saying something. All of Shi's recognition is very well deserved. Bring on the feature length debut!
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡