I spent my weekend catching up on sleep. More importantly, I dragged my work-induced comatose body to the cinema to catch Incredibles 2, because at this point it is practically blasphemous I took so long to watch it. While I enjoyed it, and appreciate Brad Bird’s immense attention to detail, I felt it wasn’t worth the 14-year wait. Some of you might want to fight me on this, but it is what it is. What surprised me the most about the experience wasn’t The Incredibles, but rather, the short film that was shown before it, an animated short called Bao. If you haven’t gotten a chance to watch it, do check out the video below. It’s not a full version of the film, but it does a decent job of capturing majority of what is there.
Food and Identity
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, bao is a reference to a steamed bun (or dumpling if the skin is thinner). It has a fluffy, floury texture, and we stuff it full of filling, which can be sweet or savory, depending on what you are in the mood for. My personal favorite is the salted egg yolk bao (“liu sha bao”). When you break it in half or bite into it, it oozes this golden custard-like goodness that is both sweet and salty, so it feels like a party in your mouth.
This might feel like digression from the discussion of the short film, but it really isn’t. In Bao, the mother-son relationship is defined around food. It makes sense since, traditionally, our mothers are our first providers of food. What they cook, how they cook, become key parts in shaping who we are as individuals. Hence, the beginning of the film is especially important, as the scene opens to the Chinese mother making bao. We follow her actions as she rolls out the dough, deftly molds them into perfect shapes, and begins filling them with a kind of minced meat stuffing.
As they steam and she waits for them to be done, she stares out of the window kind of pensively. There is no cheer in her as she makes the food, serves the food or even when she eats the food. There is a mundanity in her interactions with the space and her husband, who also doesn’t seem to enjoy the food but just wolfs it down and leaves for work. As she is eating the last bao, in a quick turn to magical realism, it suddenly comes alive.
Motherhood and Family
As she begins to take care of the bao, we are left wondering where this film is headed. Obviously, the bao is symbolic of a child, since we watch it grow day by day, so my guess was empty nest syndrome. The mom is having a hard time adjusting to a child-less space that she creates this bao-is-alive illusion for herself.
In the pivotal scene that follows, we see the bao become an adult and leaves the house with his white (“ang moh”) fiance . The mother’s reaction is so aggressive. She refuses to let him go and ends up…stuffing the bao into her mouth! The members of the audience were stunned at this point. Startled gasps could be heard all around and someone beside me exclaimed, “Did she just eat her child?” Our reactions were such because we all found it disturbing that a mother could eat her own child, even if it is symbolic.
However, people often forget the archetype of the devouring mother, mothers who, having served their children for so long, become controlling and obsessive in their need to assert authority over them. I found this depiction of the Asian mother scarily accurate. In more western cultures, there is, for the most part, encouragement to become independent adults, to have lives separate from that of their parents. Children often find themselves moving out to go to college, easing into the course of adult living. For us, so much of our lives are based around the family and pleasing our parents. Rebellion is usually met with the harsh severing of familial ties. It is hard to mend these relationships in the aftermath of such events, but not impossible.
Tradition and Progression
It is so heart warming to see the son returning home to make peace with his mom, bringing a pink pastry box with him, and they share the treats together (it is also a nice recall to the consistent food motif in the film).
This is the beginning of the healing of the relationship. I did wonder what caused the fracture in the first place. Was it because he wanted to move out? Or was it his desire to marry someone of a different race? At the end we get this scene of the whole family, including his fiance, making bao together. The fact that the fiance is able to make the bao so perfectly despite having a different culture reflects very acutely the need for us to realize that the world is changing. We can hold onto our traditions, our culture, but it is important to share them, and be willing to embrace what might be new and foreign.
Not many films can do so much, in so little time, and with no dialogue. Bao is a visual and narrative treat that I couldn’t stop thinking about, a film that encapsulates what movie making is all about.
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on Bao? Comment down below!
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