Will Chinese Oscar Watchers be Rooting for “Bao” at the Academy Awards?

Domee Shi's Pixar short film Bao - about a Chinese mother and a dumpling - is in the running for an Oscar at the 2019 Academy Awards, but will China care?

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2:24 AM HKT, Fri January 11, 2019 3 mins read

In case the Golden Globes didn’t give it away [ed’s note: yes, Sandra Oh, yes!], we are now into “awards season” — that time of year when the great and good of Hollywood pat themselves on the backs with glitzy gong ceremonies.

China, like most countries around the world, will be watching when the season culminates next month with the announcement of the Academy Awards winners. And while the chances of either Operation Red Sea (which bizarrely is Hong Kong’s pick) or Hidden Man (China’s) scooping the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film seem slim — Update: neither have made the final nominations cut — after a year in which Asian representation in mainstream American cinema has been stronger than usual, Chinese audiences may have an extra interest in rooting for certain movies and stars, even if their China connections are less clear-cut.

Crazy Rich Asians might be expected to garner some support in China, yet as we’ve previously noted, reactions to the movie — which failed to pick up any awards at the Globes and has been ignored by the Baftas — were lukewarm in China.


But what of Bao, the Pixar short that accompanied Incredibles 2, and has made the Academy’s shortlist for Best Animated Short?

Directed by Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi, Bao tells the story of an ageing Chinese mom with empty nest syndrome who relives her motherhood through the form of a dumpling that comes to life as a lively dumpling boy.

In Slate, Inkoo Kang described the film as a “moving encapsulation of the Asian-immigrant experience”. Jess Lee, in Digital Spy, wrote that Bao “hit extremely close to home” personally, but also emphasized that the film contained “universal themes which should resonate with most cultures”.

So how did this representation of Chinese culture go down in China? Generally speaking, non-Chinese depictions of Chinese culture such as Crazy Rich Asians and Mulan have not done well in the Chinese market. Both films were criticized for not depicting Chinese culture accurately and in some cases for even disparaging it (accusations that the new live action remake of Mulan appears to be at pains to avoid).

In Bao‘s case, Xuan Zheng, an assistant professor of English at Peking University, argues that the short generally represents Chinese culture accurately. “Chinese boys in China may not be as independent as the ‘bao’ in the film, they are usually more attached to their mothers. As a female audience member from China, I actually agree with the attitude of the ‘bao’ in film”.

Jane Yang, Project Director of Inktale Shanghai, says she found the film confusing at first, but ultimately appreciated its depiction of the dynamic between Chinese parents and their children. Yang believes the film is worthy of an Oscar nomination because “the form of expression is unique and interesting. The content is exquisite and the ending is warm and moving.”

On Douban, China’s equivalent of IMDB/Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a score of 7.1 out of 10. This is significantly higher than Crazy Rich Asians which earned a rating of just 6.2.

The top-rated comment [spoiler alert] on Douban translates to,

“The plot is a bit weird. Fortunately, it ends with the cliché of a dream sequence, but I am also confused by my own reactions because when Bao is devoured by the mother, it made me both inexplicably cry and laugh at the same time. This film truly demonstrates why Chinese and Western cultures are different.”

Relatively speaking, Bao actually seems to have been better received in China compared to other non-Chinese representations of Chinese culture, but there are still people who are dissatisfied with the film.

May Geng, a sophomore at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, found the film to be insulting. “This film shows that all Chinese mothers are controlling and unreasonable!” she says. Geng adds that she felt that all the characters in the animation looked “ugly”.

One commenter on video and gaming site Bilbili was similarly frustrated with the contrast between depictions of Asians and the only white character in the film: “Just when I thought all the characters’ eyes were going to be that way [small], in came a blonde-haired beauty with big shining eyes!”

bao pixar eyes

Even among those who enjoyed the film, they generally found the physical depictions of the characters to be a bit off-putting. “The only thing that I was slightly disappointed with was the fact that everyone looked a little fat,” says Xuan Zheng from Peking U.

Such reactions to the short, billed by Pixar as exploring “the ups and downs of the parent-child relationship through the colorful, rich, and tasty lens of the Chinese immigrant community in Canada”, expose the differences between mainland Chinese audiences and the overseas Chinese diaspora, or people of Chinese heritage living abroad. All of these groups have a certain “ownership” over “Chinese culture“, but such differences show how treating such a culture as some sort of homogenous, unifying block can be problematic.

Nevertheless, on the whole Bao didn’t generate the kind of negative reviews that Crazy Rich Asians did in China, and audiences in the country have generally warmed to it. Should it triumph at the Oscars next month, don’t be surprised if awards-watchers in China celebrate its win.

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