Once again coming after all the drama has settled, I have decided to put my two cents in on something. I saw Bao a month ago with my friend, and didn’t think much of it initially. But then all the drama rose and fell surrounding the short, with confusion arising over some aspects of Chinese culture. Is the short worth all the drama? Let’s take a look.
I am going to divide this into three sections: the pros, the cons, and a look at the whole controversy. I’ll try to pinpoint some significant cultural aspects that some people might not understand when looking at this. The analysis here is based off of my opinion, but I’ll try to be factual. This will be spoilery, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, watch out.
What I like the most about the story is the overall message. It was short, and got its story line out without any words. The animation was cohesive and colorful, all the characters being soft lines and not sticking out against the little dumpling child. Everyone was plump and round, and each character was distinctive in characteristic.
I honestly thought the film was a heartwarming tale. I am not quite certain what position the mother is in, but based off of the experiences of my friends’ first generation mothers clashing with them, I imagine there is some influence in there. She clashes with her son, who she sees as acting too far out against her, with the dumpling being a metaphor for her relationship with her son. It really was a powerful portrayal. The short portrays fracturing and reconciliation within a family, with a mother being initially unable to accept her son leaving. It is a story thousands of families face- and it does a decent job at it.
Overall, I thought it was short but had a good story to tell. It was well-animated, and was much better than the last Disney-related short I had to sit through (I’m looking at you, Frozen). I got invested, without needing twenty minutes to do so. It was cohesive and smart, without needing actual dialogue.
I have mentioned that Bao does a decent job at telling it’s story. But it’s not perfect.
The biggest con I can think of for this short is that fact that it relies very heavily on the use of metaphor. Which, works for adults and people who have a concept of metaphor, but not so much for children. In order to explain this, I have to go a little into the plot of the short.
Now, as I mentioned, the dumpling child is a metaphor for the woman’s relationship with her son. She raises the dumpling, but as he grows older he gets more rebellious and distant, eventually trying to leave her. Well, as a resolution, the woman eats the dumpling. Then the son, who looks like the dumpling, steps in from there.
Not bad, right? Well, the problem arises with the fact that most, if not all young children, will not connect the dumpling child as mirroring the son, without really being real. To them, they would see the dumpling child as different, and would think that she actually just murdered a dumpling person. Which, when you think about it, might put kids in distress. And it did-there were reports from audience members of some kids being distressed enough to cry from the scene. The reliance on metaphor is something that most kids-at least the ones that were anything like me-would simply not understand. It’s one flaw, but it’s a big one.
Now that I’ve given my take, let’s take a look at where the controversy comes from. The short itself was directed by Domee Shi, and was influenced by her experience with Chinese immigrant parents in Canada. And as you can see, you can see the struggles that arise between the mother and the bao as the dumpling grows up and wants to leave and have independence.
How is this a problem? Well, from my friend’s experiences (Korean and Filipino) with their immigrant parents, and from some research, I find that the family and household are very intertwined. The child is not expected to leave the house and suddenly have a career at eighteen-which presents it’s own set of problems in the West-, but are actually expected to stay in the household past eighteen. The family is central, with three or four generations sometimes living in a house together. This idea comes at odds with American culture, especially for the children of immigrants who are surrounded by that culture. It often causes a strain in the relationships (as I’ve seen with some of my best friends and their parents), as the clash in culture causes arguments.
Now, because of my witnessing of these experiences, I am familiar with the cultural clash, especially in Asian immigrant families. However, there were quite a few people (mostly white Americans), who didn’t understand what was happening. This is where the controversy starts. There was an explosion of arguments, as people who didn’t understand the nature and context of the short began social media arguments with people who understood the short all too well. This caused calls of racism and ignorance, when I have to say such sayings might have been a little uncalled for.
Because of social media and the fact that huge portions of the US and Canadian populations live in large, diverse cities, we often forget that there are people who don’t know the experiences of immigrant families, nor understand the context of Asian culture versus Western Culture. When informed, people will grasp it, but when people don’t understand, a pivotal scene like the woman eating the bao would not make much sense. It would just seem like an overreaction to an argument, rather than an important moment that permanently changes the relationship of a family.
Does this mean we should have “dumbed down” the scene for people? No, not at all. While I do think some of the comments I saw were just people who were genuinely confused and not ignorant, I do think some people took advantage to stir up a huge controversy. I don’t think the short should have stirred up that much controversy, but I am not in a position where I understand all sides.