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‘Bao’: Pixar’s First Female Short Film Director, Domee Shi, on Her Love Letter to Immigrant Moms
You may never look at dumplings—or your mother—the same way again. Domee Shi opens up about the tearjerking short that’s making ‘Incredibles 2’ audiences openly weep. And hungry.
It’s a common enough experience for many teenagers: to grow up, look back, and wince at memories of the hell they put their parents through. The self-indulgence, stubbornness, the thoughtless remarks; all mortifying little reminders of the debt they owe the flawed humans who raised them, and the distance they may have helped create.
That dawning of a guilt-twinged appreciation stirs up even more fraught emotions when one parent or both is also an immigrant—one who sacrificed more than you may ever have to, just for you to door-slam and eye-roll your way through a comfortable American adolescence. That cultural divide—the darkness and humor of it—and the role of food in bridging that distance is at the heart of Bao, the lovingly crafted animated short accompanying Disney-Pixar’s Incredibles 2 in theaters.
Written and directed by Domee Shi, the first female director of a Pixar short, Bao is part fairy tale, part food porn, and a wholehearted love letter to Chinese immigrant moms. A lonely empty-nester eating a home-cooked batch of (delectably rendered) steamed dumplings spits one out in a panic when it suddenly wails a baby’s cry. Toppling around helplessly in its bamboo steamer, the dumpling (“bao” in Chinese) sprouts a tiny body, arms, and legs. Faced with its truly formidable cuteness, the mother adopts him as her own, raising him as she would a child.
In the way that Pixar’s Coco was etched with culturally specific details of Mexican traditions, Bao’s portrait of the Chinese immigrant experience brims with authenticity. From the mother’s hair and sun visor (modeled after the “Chinatown grannies” the short’s creative team often saw on research trips) to the pastries and walls of the bakery she visits, to her home adorned with Chinese dishes and a calendar, Bao feels as lived-in as it does heightened—precisely why its gut-punch climax lands with such devastating effect.
Like many children of immigrants, the bao grows from a loving, easy-to-please kid into a teenage jerk whose bid for independence includes rejecting parts of his parents’ culture. With a goatee and glasses to match his surly new attitude, the bao’s relationship with his mother disintegrates. He spends less and less time with her, choosing friends with convertibles instead; he opts for soccer instead of tai chi; he turns down food she offers him, including bread and a mouth-watering spread of traditional Chinese dishes she spent all afternoon cooking just for him. A gulf opens between mother and son, with only one invested in keeping them together.
The final straw: The bao brings home a blond-haired, blue-eyed girlfriend—with a ring on her finger! Desperate not to let her dumpling-son go, the mother lashes out and swallows him whole, instantly collapsing into frustrated tears.
It’s a moment as startling as it is darkly funny, recognizable even in its absurdity. When it passes, the mother imagines her precious bao silhouetted in front of her and, as the picture comes into focus, we see it’s her real, human son, now fully grown and returned home to make amends. He offers his mother the pastries he turned down as a teenager, and the pair and his fiancée bond over hand-crafting a new batch of baos, this time as an extended family. Fin.
Understandably, the short’s depiction of a near-universal experience through such a culturally specific lens is resonating more deeply among audiences than your average Pixar short.
Slate’s Inkoo Kang admits she was caught off-guard by the short and praised its attention to detail: “I’m not Chinese, but I instantly felt at home in the opening scene inside the mother’s kitchen, which was adorned with pieces of my own childhood,” she writes. A BuzzFeed writer claims she “full body-sobbed” at the film; moviegoers elsewhere, meanwhile, have drenched Twitter in photos of literal tears.
For others, Bao means something even more: Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen wrote Friday, “I teared up because I felt proud of this representation of my culture.”
When I inform Shi that, like many, Bao sent me from stoic to inconsolable in well under its eight-minute runtime, she awws sympathetically and commiserates.
She drew “huge” inspiration for the short from her own childhood in Toronto as the only daughter of Chinese-born immigrants. (Shi herself was born in Chongqing, near Sichuan province, before emigrating to Canada as a child.) “My mom was always super overprotective of me as well,” she says by phone from Los Angeles the week of Bao’s premiere. “I feel like she’d always treat me like a precious little dumpling, like just making sure that I was always safe, that I never left the nest.”
Shi’s point is driven home for her as we speak—her mother is actually in the room with her, “watching over” her as we talk, she jokes. Shi’s mother, Ningsha Zhong, more than earned her place in this press junket: She’s credited as a cultural consultant for the film, aka the “Dumpling Queen.” Its opening shots, in which the bao’s mother effortlessly kneads and folds dough into dumplings, are copied directly from footage of Shi’s mother, who held dumpling-making demonstrations for the production crew.
Zhong is happy with the short (she’s seen it “four times,” she pipes up to add) but in case you wondered, she didn’t shed any tears. “She felt touched,” Shi says, quoting her mother directly. “She’s not really a crier.”
The dumpling’s mother was in part based on her, but production designer Rona Liu incorporated elements of her own mother as well, Shi says. “Our grandmas are also in that mom character, our aunts—just all the really strong Chinese female figures in our lives.”
The cultural gap between immigrants and their children is “definitely something I wanted to touch upon in the short,” Shi says. “Especially when the dumpling is growing older and he’s getting non-Chinese friends and going out and he wants to play soccer and is unappreciative of his mom’s home-cooked Chinese food, like he’d rather go out and eat McDonald’s or something.” The complexities of introducing new people—let alone a fiancée—to an environment like the home also proved fruitful to think about. “Like these parents having to interact with these different people that their kids are dating or meeting. I really wanted to explore that dynamic,” she says.
Traditional fairy tales like the Little Gingerbread Man influenced Shi’s magical sentient dumpling as well. “I wanted to do like a Chinese version of it,” she says. “I always loved fairy tales, I think they’re so whimsical and magical. They also can be really dark at the same time and I love that contrast between light and dark elements.”
Japanese animation legend Isao Takahata’s Studio Ghibli films, in particular his 1999 freeform comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas, also guided Shi’s approach to capturing the details of Chinese immigrant life.
“He’s been a huge influence on me creatively because he manages to find the magic in everyday life,” she says. “In this movie, the Yamadas are just like this really average Japanese family, but he puts so much charm and heart into all of the stories with them and he really captures all the slice-of-life details in their household.” Hence the tiny, easily missed specificities of the bao’s home: tinfoil covering the burners on the stove; a toilet paper roll on the coffee table; a rice cooker in the background.
To say nothing of the star dumpling himself. Shi says she always envisioned her protagonist as a bao, a steamed dumpling (fun fact: pronounced a different way, the word “bao” also means “precious” in Chinese), rather than “an actual wet dumpling, because I really wanted him to look squishy and firm and soft with a glossy finish.”
Research included trips to more Chinese restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland’s Chinatowns than she can count, where the delightful concept of “dumpling photo shoots” materialized. “We took tons of pictures,” she says. “Like, with our director of photography we staged lots of photo shoots because we really wanted to capture that real squishy, edible, appealing look and try to replicate that as best as possible on the big screen,” she says.
The short’s culinary coup de grace comes in a salivating shot of the extravagant dinner the mother cooks for her pouting bao: bok choi, stir-fried green beans, boiled fish in red chili oil, and of course, heaps of immaculate, delectable-looking dumplings.
That that shot is met with immediately grumbling stomachs in every theater is the short’s hardest-won victory. “The biggest challenge for us was all the food effects,” Shi explains. “We’re all experts on what good food looks like. Every human being is. So if it’s a little bit off or if it doesn’t look good, it could take people out of the story.” (It didn’t.)
Pixar hired Shi straight out of college as a story intern in 2011. She quickly graduated to story artist and worked on titles including Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Toy Story 4, and the studio’s latest release, Incredibles 2.
Bao, meanwhile, began as a personal side project for Shi in early 2014; it took a year or so before she submitted her idea, at Inside Out director Pete Docter’s suggestion, to an open call for pitches for Pixar’s shorts program. Out of 20 artists’ pitches, hers was green-lit. She quit her full-time gig as a story artist and got to work perfecting storyboards for her directing debut.
First-time producer Becky Neiman-Cobb, who first joined Pixar in 2004 as a production assistant, eventually teamed up with Shi to put together a crew. “We’re sort of the indie wing,” Neiman-Cobb says of the studio’s shorts program. “We don’t have a big budget, we don’t usually have people for very long because we’re really at the will of who’s available in between feature productions that are going on at the studio. So often we would have to pause production because there wouldn’t be anybody available.”
The short took around a year and a half to complete, including starts and stops. It’s the studio’s first-ever project helmed by a solo female director—or any female director since 2012’s Brave, on which Brenda Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews midway through production. “We had a really strong leadership team of people who were doing it for the first time, many of which are women, so that was also really cool for all of us,” Neiman-Cobb says.
For her part, Shi says this particular “first” still “hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”
“It’s amazing. I feel so honored and humbled and I hope I’m not the last and I’m the first of many female short film directors and feature film directors,” she says. She’s already set her sights on the latter job title, too. “I would definitely love to direct a feature as my next big project. I’m right now working in development at Pixar on doing just that. It’s gonna be a huge challenge, going from an eight-minute short to a 90-minute film. We’re still super early on but really excited about it.”
Asked whether either of them fears audiences will come away from Bao unable to look at dumplings the same way again, Shi laughs. “Hopefully it makes people really hungry after watching it,” she says. “You know, really hungry but morally confused about eating dumplings.”
“Lots of dumplings were hurt in the making of Bao,” Neiman-Cobb quips.
But if there’s one thing audiences should do after walking out, they both agree, it’s make a phone call: “Call your mom and invite her out to lunch!” they demand. After Bao, nothing sounds better.