Watching the first half of Domee Shi‘s Bao with a quizzical expression is par for the course. How could you not react that way with this story of a Chinese-Canadian woman who begins to treat a hand-made dumpling like it is her child? It’s one thing to gasp and laugh when the tiny piece of food begins to wail as she attempts to take a bite, but another to witness as it sprout arms and legs before moving through the motions of adolescence. By the time “he” turns into a rebellious teenager with a goatee who refuses to listen to or acknowledge the formerly tight-knit relationship had with his mother, it’s hard to know where Shi might go. And then comes the moment everyone will talk about afterwards.
I don’t want to spoil things—although I’ve seen many on social media spilling the beans because of the deed’s provocative nature—so I’ll just say the mother does what any parent might if his/her food was making impulsive decisions that may or may not take it down a path of no return. It’s human nature to want to protect your child so fervently that you overreact in the moment and risk ensuring a difficult situation turns nuclear. There comes a time when every kid starts to yearn for an escape out from under the shadow of his/her guardian in order to experience true freedom of choice. This moment can feel like a battle between two forces that cannot see clearly, each doubling-down to the point of fracture.
This film is therefore a metaphor for the heavy emotional toll an empty nest provides. We’re watching as a mother seeks to reclaim a past she’s yet to outgrow. But no matter how hard she tries to recreate the magic of early parenthood, a child’s wishes to fly the coop arise regardless. That desire for more is an intrinsic characteristic ushering us towards adulthood and something we all must accept no matter the pain or irrational sense of abandonment it carries. All we can do as parents is supply a measured response to maintain a loving connection devoid of the pettiness and anger age’s inevitable erasure of superiority brings. You can’t shield your baby from suffering, but you can make certain that you aren’t the one causing it.
Shi delivers a heartfelt look at a rough psychological experience rarely seen in coming-of-age films considering they’re almost always focused on the child. But just as our youth endures the unpredictability of adolescence’s growing pains, adults are also unprepared for their roles as stewards within that process. Children mature until they’re ready to relinquish the safety net that so long protected them from the dangers their false notions of immortality allowed. And at the same time parents see the role of protector that they so readily accepted fade away—or at the very least become a secondary concern about advice rather than law. Where the former move towards promise, the latter can languish within a void defined by absence. Our hope is that distance doesn’t mean they’ll forget.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures