The Romesh Ranganathan column: eating a dumpling baby

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Romesh writes in every issue of Film Stories – and here’s one of his earlier columns, about how a Pixar short left him rather traumatised.

Romesh Ranganathan (@RomeshRanga)

I am, to this day, emotionally traumatised by Bao, the excellent Pixar short from last year. I found it so shocking that I couldn’t tell you what I thought of the film it preceded, The Incredibles 2, save for the fact that Edna Mode remains one of my all time favourite characters.

If you haven’t seen Bao, it tells the story of a Chinese Canadian woman who makes a bowl of Chinese dumplings, only to find one of them comes to life, whereupon she raises it as her child. So far, so Pixar short. The little dumpling child is super cute, and we see him grow up, initially being completely dependent on his mum, before becoming a teenager who becomes increasingly distant. This very much resonated with me as I looked across at my three sons who seem to age about a year every time I go away for work, and who also manage to smash through about a mortgage payment’s worth of snacks every time we go to the cinema.

The dumpling eventually meets a girl, which is a very welcome reminder that anyone can find love, and decides he wants to move out with her. The mother doesn’t want this, presumably because she is as horrified as us about the thought of how a dumpling might have sex. She tries to block his exit. By this point, the dumpling really has become a bit of an arsehole, which made me feel bad about not calling my mother enough. A scuffle at the door ensues, and the mother is so determined to stop him leaving that she gobbles him up and eats him. This is a truly shocking moment. The act of eating him, and her face afterwards as she realises what she’s done, are upsetting, and my memory of this moment has been furnished with a gasp from the audience that I suspect my brain may have added in post production. I consider myself fairly unshockable, but this was a proper knock you out of your seat surprise.

The film closes with the woman’s husband knocking on her door and bringing in a young man who looks exactly like the dumpling, and the metaphor becomes clear. The mother and son reconcile and we have a happy ending. I looked into the film afterwards and discovered it was a directorial debut by the film’s writer Domee Shi, who intended the film to explain the process of Chinese parenting but, as is the way with these things, it ended up being extremely relatable to all. I was also unsurprised to discover that the eating moment was almost the starting point of the film’s development, and that they spent a long time debating whether it was too much to include it. I think that they were right to. I’m pretty sure I would not have felt compelled to write a piece like this had they not. However, what became clear to me was that my boys had not all fully grasped the metaphor, which is understandable. I am pretty sure that the younger two believed they had just watched a story of a woman who ate her dumpling son, then another son turned up and it was a happy ending because he wasn’t edible.

The boys have been gifted with something wonderful, in my opinion. And that is, in years to come, they may settle down to watch Bao, and have that amazing moment where they realise what the film was actually about. That brilliant moment where you remember watching something and enjoying it, and then upon rewatching you realise you suddenly get it. It’s something that is becoming rare as a crowded marketplace combined with internet-eroded attention spans mean that cinema increasingly holds our hands through every step of storytelling. I hope my kids settle down to watch Bao at some point in the future. If they don’t, I guess they will always have the memory of that horrifying short about the woman eating her dumpling baby.

Romesh Ranganathan’s new book, Straight Outta Crawley, is available now

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