One of the best things about going to a Pixar movie is that you often get two: the film that you pay for, and a surprise short that comes before it.
The first woman to direct a Pixar short brings dumplings to life
Now, for the first time in the animation studio’s 32-year history, that appetizer is no longer exclusively made by men.
Domee Shi, a Chinese-Canadian artist, made history as the first woman to direct a short film at Pixar with “Bao,” about a Chinese mom and a dumpling she makes that springs to life.
“It’s amazing. It’s an honor,” Shi said in an interview with Inkstone, adding that she hopes she’s just the first of many more female directors to come.
A story artist who started at Pixar as an intern seven years ago, Shi is the first Asian woman to direct any film at the studio.
(Brenda Chapman became the first female co-director of a feature film at Pixar in 2012 with the Academy Award-winning “Brave.”)
In her first effort as both the director and writer of the mini-movie, Shi is hoping to win minds as well as stomachs.
At seven-and-a-half-minutes, “Bao” is the longest short film Pixar has ever produced.
It will be screened before “Incredibles 2,” which opens June 15.
Bao, meaning “bun” in one tone in Mandarin and “treasure” in another, is a play on words that perfectly captures what the main character, a lonely mother, sees in her dumplings after her son leaves home to pursue a life of his own.
As someone who left her parents in Toronto to pursue work elsewhere – an internship at Pixar in California – Shi draws on her personal experiences as inspiration for “Bao.”
“I definitely empty-nested them big time,” she said. “I think they had to learn to kind of let me go and know that even though I'm not with them 24/7, I still love and care about them.”
Born in the southwest Chinese megacity of Chongqing, Shi moved with her parents to Toronto at two and grew up as an only child to her parents at a time when China enforced a one-child policy. (The policy was relaxed in 2015 to allow two children in most families.)
“My mom would always treat me like a precious little dumpling, making sure I was always safe. They didn't wander away too far,” she said.
The movie is the first Pixar production that features a strong Chinese theme, and the story is one that many Chinese families will find particularly familiar.
More than 100 million people over 60 live alone in China, according to government census data.
Loneliness and a significant caretaking burden are just some of the consequences of the country’s long-time one-child policy.
In 2013, the Chinese government enacted a law – called the “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People” – to compel adult children to visit their aging parents often.
For Shi, the movie provided a bonding exercise between herself and her mother, Ningsha Zhong, who even became the cultural consultant credited in the film.
“We would have her come to the studio and teach our crew how to make them,” said Becky Neiman-Cobb, the short’s producer. “She was our resident expert on dumplings.”
While Shi’s parents now fully support her career, she remembers having to overcome parental qualms to pursue a career in animation.
“At first, in typical parent fashion they were hesitant. They were like, ‘maybe you should go into something that's a little bit more secure, like being a doctor or a lawyer’,” says Shi.
But Shi responded that she would be working in a studio and it wouldn’t be “the ‘starving artist’ type of career.”
“I was like, ‘animation is like the perfect blend of creativity and artistry and capitalism’,” she said.
The movie may indeed prove to be a box office success if it manages to endear itself to Chinese moviegoers, who are set to overtake North America as the world’s biggest film market.
Clearly, you can have your Bao and eat it too.