Eating, a ritual—‘Bao’ by Domee Shi, wins Best Animated Short at Oscars

Photo: TIFF

I love food. Dim sum, sushi, shawarma…the list goes on. There is something personal yet inclusive about enjoying of good food. The act of eating creates a sense of connection, and that aspect of food is especially exemplified in Asian cinema—to name a few, last year’s one of the biggest hits Crazy Rich Asians, Eat Drink Man Woman by Ang Lee, ramen-western comedy Tampopo by Tsumtomu Yamazaki and Japanese TV series Midnight Diner.

The film tells the story of a retired and widowed Chinese master chef Chu (Si Hung Lung) and his family living in modern day Taipei, Taiwan.

Two Japanese milk-truck drivers (Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken Watanabe) help a restaurant owner (Nobuko Miyamoto) learn how to cook great noodles.

Open from midnight to 7 a.m., the tiny, tucked-away Japanese diner draws a diverse group of patrons who bond over the Master’s food while sharing their soulful stories.

In the meiji-period, sharing a meal with family in Japan bared with it a ritualistic aspect. In Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human, the young protagonist has a deep suspicion that mealtimes are indeed rituals. The book centers around a protagonist who has trouble understanding how humans live in egoism and bad faith. Although not knowing what hunger feels like, when offered cakes and biscuits by adults, he never says no as he holds a sense of guilt. It is fair to say that trying to make someone’s stomach filled with good food, has always been the ultimate act of love.

“Food is how your parents show that they love you. …They say it through fussing over you but also cooking for you, making sure you’re always well-fed,” said Domee Shi, who won the Academy Award for best animated film, Bao, in an interview with Cineplex.

Shi, born in China and moved to Toronto when she was two years old with her family. She studied animation at Sheridan College and affter earning an internship at Pixar, she soon became the first woman to direct a Pixar short film.

“So what better way to tell this story of a Chinese family than making food as a center focus?” I cannot agree more with Pixar’s first female short film director.

Bao, is a touching piece set in Toronto. It explores the themes of Chinese culture, migrant family and the importance of cultural food with a whimsical touch of magic realism, inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s works.

It is about “a lonely Chinese mother suffering from empty nest syndrome who is thrilled to become a parent again when one of her homemade dumplings comes to life,” reads the Academy’s description of the 2018 short. The mother is protective of her little adorable dumpling son, and they share precious moments like strolling around Spadina’s Chinatown, and sharing sweets on streetcars. But “as dumpling grows, however, the inevitable conflicts between parent and child arise and Mom must acknowledge that no one stays little forever.”

The film revolves around how cooking, grocery shopping and enjoying food can influence emotions and act as catalysis to change relationships. Little Bao and his mother share little cakes. Mother gives full play to her cooking talent, to bond again with her son who is drifting away from her as he is making more friends outside of home. The son and mother, share the cake as a reminiscent of childhood memories while shedding tears. Food punctuates and shapes the plot points of the story. It is a talisman against the loneliness Asian migrant parents experience when their children leave home.

Bao skillfully develops its narrative around the act of cooking and eating. It is enjoyable to all, but especially for Asian migrant communities in western societies, and for Asian women.

“To all of the nerdy girls out there who hide behind their sketchbooks—don’t be afraid to tell your stories to the world,” Shi said onstage in her acceptance speech. “You’re going to freak people out but you’ll probably connect with them, too, and that’s an amazing feeling to have.”

“Bao, was a moving love letter that every immigrant Asian mom and adult child could relate to,” said Toronto Councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam on Twitter after Shi’s big win.

YouTube has taken down the free version of the video, but you can still stream it on YouTube for $1.99 or buy it in the Google Play store for the same price.

And here’s the recipe of how to make Director Domee Shi’s dumplings, bao!