Bao: Chinoiserie with a Purpose

August 21, 2018


            Note: Bao is currently only available to be viewed in theaters alongside Incredibles 2. As such, I couldn’t watch it more than twice—as I’ve seen Incredibles 2 twice now—nor take the extensive score notes I usually do due to the dark theater. As the only way to watch it outside theaters is via unofficial YouTube clips--and one official clip--I would rather wait until Disney/Pixar’s official upload to show support for the short. As such, this post may be edited after Bao’s release on YouTube or another platform.

            When I entered the Incredibles 2 theatre, Bao was something I did not expect. Sure I’d seen an article about it (that I had to skip large sections of due to spoilers), but, well, I’d come for something else. So, after Samuel L. Jackson’s “Get ready. You don’t want to miss [Incredibles 2]”, I settled in for the Parr family, only to be greeted by Bao.

            After which I promptly started crying. This is a fantastic short film about the cultural struggles immigrants and their children experience, and it is beautiful. After watching it a second time, I saw another part of its beauty—its use of chinoiserie by composer Toby Chu to reflect the film’s central conflict.

            Before getting into Bao, what is chinoiserie? As defined by Merriam-Webster, chinoiserie is “a style in art…reflecting Chinese qualities or motifs”. In music, this refers to the use of Chinese musical traditions, & the term can also refer to the use of Japanese musical traditions (such as in Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly).

           When proper research is done to ensure accurate representation of the musical traditions in question, chinoiserie can be a good thing. A modern example of this is the Kung Fu Panda films.

 (skip over to 1:55)

            As you can see, despite the use of Chinese instruments and the pentatonic scale (perhaps the most well-known aspect of Chinese music), the score is dominated by Western orchestral instruments and Western musical traditions (just listen to those harmonies!)

            Chinoiserie becomes a problem when research isn’t done and only the most basic, recognizable elements of these musical traditions are used. A good example of this is the music in the date scene from Birdemic. Just…ugh. 

            Now, let’s talk about Bao, and its good, purposeful use of chinoiserie.

            The film starts with out main character, a Chinese mother, cooking. She is accompanied various instruments (including the erhu & liuqin), instruments of the Chinese orchestra. This continues as she finishes cooking and as Dumpling is “born”. Our first Western instruments—Western strings—are introduced into the score after Mom measures Dumpling’s height for the 1st time.

           From there, Toby Chu gives both Chinese and Western instruments a presence in the score. In a later scene, Mom and Dumpling start to clash as Dumpling desires to do things relating to American culture, and Mom becomes frustrated and angry as he rejects her culture. The score’s instruments have been perfectly positioned to represent that conflict, and they do so perfectly. As Dumpling sneaks away from his mother to play soccer, Western strings accent his escape, and when she kicks the ball away, a yangqin underlines her anger. Later on, when Dumpling slams his bedroom door in his mother’s face, a Chinese gong rings out, showing how he’s not inherently rejecting her, but her culture.

            Perhaps the most poignant moment of all is when Mom eats Dumpling, an act she cannot take back. After she swallows, there is no music, and as she bursts into tears of grief, the score continues its silence. The cultural struggle has ended with no victor to be found, and thus, neither class of instruments can speak.

            However, this is not the end. Mom goes to her bedroom to continue crying, the score still silent until we see Dumpling again. His reappearance—and transformation into her true son—is accented by a light ensemble of Western instruments. These instruments, piano and a few strings, enter tentatively. As he approaches his mother with a peace offering—Chinese sweet buns (perhaps nai huang bao)—these instruments swell. After she accepts a bun, and they eat together in an emotive silence, the Western instruments slowly, hesitantly, continue their melody. Mom is starting to accept her son’s absorption of Western culture, her stance against it now changed. In turn, the score mirrors her new perspective.

            The film ends with one final scene of both the Son’s parents spending time with him and his American fiancé. Here, the score comprises all Western instruments with some aspects of Chinese musical tradition(such as the pentatonic scale) as part of the writing. Mom & Son have further accepted each other’s cultures, and both the final scene and the score’s last moments convey this as we come to a close.

            Bao’s use of chinoiserie differs from that of many film scores. It uses chinoiserie to aid its plot, and thus illustrate the plot’s conflicts through music. What a fantastic way to use chinoiserie!

Favorite Score Moments

           Favorite score moments are parts of the score I liked the most. Some are subtle, some are not, but all stood out to me. They’re not necessarily the same as my favorite scenes, as some of the most interesting parts of a score can come during a film’s understated moments.

           I didn’t mention this in the above post for the sake of focus, but Bao also has a repeated motif representing Mom & Dumpling’s relationship. This theme starts out quite cheerful, but it distorts as the relationship becomes more strained; it’s also the tentative melody heard during the second-to-last scene. During the final scene, the theme takes its original, cheerful form, as if to show that Mom & Son are taking steps to repair their relationship. Hearing such strong usage of a repeated motif was a refreshing reminder as to why I love film scoring. The way musical themes can reinforce a film ‘s plot is what I’m all about, both as a composer and as a lover of film, and seeing Bao do this so precisely brought tears to my eyes (in addition to film’s plot doing that already!).


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