As mentioned before, in my real life I’m a literature teacher at a high school. If you’ll permit me to exercise my non-quilting skills, I’ll demonstrate what I do on a daily basis in my classroom.
I recently took my kids to see Incredibles 2 (okay, let’s be honest – I took myself, the kids were just along for the ride!) Like many Pixar films, there was a short film prior. These are really cute and usually saturated with metaphors and rife with literary analysis, and this movie was no different. It had a little film titled “Bao”, directed by Domee Shi. Some friends of mine, and other rando folks on the internet, expressed confusion and concern over it. As a literature teacher, I “got it”, so I figured I’d share this little analysis with you all.
The Folklore Connection
So there are several things going on in the background of this little film that help with sorting it all out. For starters, this is a nice little nod to the Eastern folklore story of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” (It goes by other variations of that name as well.) Think about it as a sort of Eastern version of “Thumbelina” or even “Pinocchio”, and you’ll follow along just fine. At its heart, it’s the story about a lonely bamboo cutter and his wife who have no children and desperately wish for one. One day while out on the job, the bamboo cutter’s wish is granted in the form of a small, very small, baby who comes from a bamboo stalk. The story goes on from there, but it’s the origin of the baby that’s important for this connection. The baby was created out of a desperate wish for companionship, for a child specifically, to love and raise. At the opening of “Bao”, we see a couple, older, who are having a quiet dinner. The husband doesn’t say much/anything, and we’re led to believe that the woman’s wish is possibly the result of loneliness in marriage.
Yes, it’s a bit of a shock when she bites into that last dumpling/bao and it begins to cry like a baby. We watch in surprise along with the lady as the dumpling becomes sentient and acts just as a baby would. Where we part ways with the woman is that she accepts the presence of the dumpling child and basically rolls with it.
Now comes the second part of the background knowledge you’ll need. Congratulations! You’ve just been exposed to [possibly] your first experience of a genre known as “magical realism”. It’s a neat genre, one of my favorites actually, where the world seems normal and folks generally go by established social norms; except when something “magical” happens they just roll with it. Examples of this genre range from the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, especially his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude, all the way to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. More popular cultural examples are found all throughout the films released by Studio Ghibli and its head, Hayao Miyazaki. Coincidentally, they also released Princess Kaguya, a version of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.”
So here’s what I mean. In Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, a character actually, literally ascends to Heaven. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. She straight up GOES Straight Up. And while we normal folks in our realm would be confused and concerned about the logistics and get caught up in the details, the normal folks in the novel take careful note of the event and then go on with their day with a sort of “guess it figures” attitude. In Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro, the kids run to the dad, claiming the house is haunted. His only response is to comment something along the lines of “Neat! I’ve always wanted to live in a haunted house!” No one questions or dismisses the kids’ claims. They believe and embrace them.
So when the little dumpling turns sentient and the woman rolls with it instead of getting caught up in the “why” and “how” of it all, the story crosses over from the realm of the normal and is now operating by the magical realism rules.
Once the scenario is established and we’ve, hopefully, accepted the situation that this woman is now a “mother” to this little dumpling child, we follow her struggles. This isn’t a normal child. It’s easily damaged, and she’s fought long and hard to bring it up as best as she can. While strange, we can compare her joys and its growth and fears of the outside world to our own if we are parents. I’m a mother of two, and the idea of something happening to my two children is enough to change my breathing and blood pressure immediately.
So we learn to understand her concerns, but we also see the little dumpling child pulling away. We see it going through the typical “phases” of childhood and adolescence. Again, we can compare these scenes to our own experiences as either parent or child – or both!
Tugging through this all is the one thought “how long can she keep this up?”
Food as a love language symbolism
It’s where these struggles reach their peak that we see how big a role food actually plays in this film. It wasn’t a coincidence that the film begins with a meal. As Professor Thomas C. Foster points out in his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, meals are symbolic of relationships and indicative of how close people are. Want to see how healthy a family really is? Watch them when they sit down to a meal together. It’s very telling. For a quick reference examine EVERY DINNER SCENE IN THE INCREDIBLES MOVIES. BOTH OF THEM.
So the film opens with a meal between two people with no conversation or eye contact. It’s an easy sell for us as the audience that the woman probably feels lonely. As strange as the device of the dumpling child would be, it’s a nice symbolic tie-in that it comes after the husband has left the table and the last piece of food is being eaten by the woman that the dumpling child manifests. It arrives at the height of her loneliness and her “love language” being unrequited or appreciated. If the phrase “love language” is confusing, here’s what I mean.
We also see the big scene where, in a last effort to reach her grumpy, petulant dumpling child, she cooks the most delicious-looking meal that animation has EVER produced! I mean I wanted to go out to the nearest Chinese restaurant after that scene and dig in! You can see the love and care she takes to ensure this meal is “perfect”. And her dumpling child rejects it and leaves her alone in the room. She then proceeds to eat the entire meal by herself. On the surface, it looks like she’s being petty and doesn’t want to give her dumpling child the satisfaction of leftovers, but symbolically she’s taking back her love because it was rejected. She can’t take it anymore and tries to “self-love” as she consumes this perfect meal by herself. Notice that the husband is no longer shown in these parts because it has ceased to be about him a long time ago. This is about her and her need for affection.
The Parent-Child Relationship Theme
After that rejected food offering, the film reaches its climax. The dumpling child returns home with a girlfriend. In fact, he indicates he’s leaving the home to be with her. Here the woman reaches her most frantic state of mind. After all that she’s done to keep him safe. All that she’s provided. All the love she’s invested. She cannot bear to see him leave, so she pulls back – literally. She does physically what I can only guess every mother has done emotionally when seeing her son “replace” her in her mind. We know she can’t actually stop him. And she probably knows that, even if she were to miraculously manage to keep him with her physically, the emotional connection has changed. In her mind, it’s gone.
And here’s where most people, rightfully so, were “disturbed”. (I use the word I’ve seen used to describe this scene by others online.) She eats it. She eats the dumpling child in a final effort to keep it from leaving her. Of course her regret is immediate because she’s still lost the dumpling child. In her fervor to keep it from leaving her, she’s destroyed any chance of a relationship.
And it’s here that the story also reaches its zenith of symbolism.
Parents know that our kids aren’t ours to keep indefinitely. They will pull away and leave our care and safety at some point. And the harder we try to control that and fight it the harder the push back is. And in her efforts to put off that separation she destroyed everything, including the one she loved most. The story acts as a warning against that consuming love that won’t admit growth and separation. It is destructive and will only end in tears and further loneliness and alienation.
Isn’t This Just Empty Nest Syndrome?
I’ve seen some claim the film is simply about “empty nest syndrome”. Well, kinda. But that seems simplistic and doesn’t quite do justice to the complexity of this story. Empty Nest Syndrome focuses on the separation of the parent and child. “Bao” is much deeper than this. It’s about that love between a mother and her child and where the line gets crossed between love that is nurturing to love that is destructive. It’s about that fear parents have of no longer being relevant in their child’s life. It’s about being possibly replaced.
Wait, there’s a son?!
And here we see her, lying on her bed in the dark, crying continuously. She’s admittedly much worse off than she was at the beginning of the film. We see the long-absent husband looking in on her with concern. And then the big reveal happens. Her human son walks in, looking adorably like a little dumpling himself. This makes it easy to understand why we’re only just now seeing him. The woman was crying both over her dumpling child’s fate AND the fact that she’s repeated the same mistake again. Held on too hard again. Severed that bond because it couldn’t be all hers… again. Her loneliness that we saw in the opening scene wasn’t from her marriage but from her vacant role as mother.
Here’s where it gets sweet. The son gets pushed in by the dad in a final attempt at reconciliation. And what does the son do to shorten the distance between himself and his mother? He speaks her love language and offers her food. And he joins her in this little “communion” and eats as well. They sit on the bed, side-by-side, and just eat. No words are necessary; they’re already speaking. He understands her much better than she realized. He was listening after all.
From this small moment, they begin again. Only this time the significant other is invited in to the relationship, and the mother assumes the role of mentor instead of “mother.” After all, her motherly instincts before revolved around protection. As a mentor, her role changes, and so do the dynamics. The wife is welcomed and included. Not only that, but she excels!
The food symbolism changes from the sitting down and eating together to the preparation of the meal itself. The mother is no longer simply offering up her love language of food for others to consume. Now she is enabling others to also express themselves in that same medium, and they create the meal together. And as such, she is no longer in fear of being irrelevant or unnecessary in her son’s life. She is important and feels it. And the best part is now her child/children have a way to speak her own love language to her. She is now open to receiving love in addition to offering it.