In a mainstream entertainment landscape that’s still sorely lacking on-screen Asian representation, Emily Ting’s winning “Go Back to China” will inevitably draw comparisons to other films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell.” And while each feature focuses on Americanized young people returning to their ancestral roots and finding surprises both good and bad, each film offers its own distinct charms and viewpoints. Why, it’s almost as if there’s more than one story to tell about people who make up literally more than half of the world’s population! Such sardonic observations would not be out of place in Ting’s sophomore film (the writer and director made her debut in 2015 with the amiable romance “Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong”), which takes a spit-out slur and turns it into the start of an unexpectedly sweet coming-of-age comedy.
Sasha Li (Anna Akana, who moves easily between the comedy and drama the film requires) is a spoiled Chinese-American fashion school grad who has never had to work a day in her life. Alternately maddening and surprisingly introspective — the film opens with an embarrassing job interview that sees Sasha neatly embodying both traits; she may have zero sense of decorum, but she’s got a pretty good handle on the exploitative nature of internships — Sasha has spent her entire life bankrolled by her rich dad, and she sees little reason to see that stop now. Her father Teddy (Richard Ng) has different ideas, though, and after a random woman on the street tells the American-born Sasha to go back to China, Teddy literally makes that happen. It’s a “Devil Wears Prada”-esque ask: spend one year in China working at his toy factory, and Teddy will give Sasha back the half of her trust fund that she hasn’t burned through.
With no job, no prospects, a giant eviction notice hanging on her door, and the very real possibility that her beloved mother will also suffer major financial consequences, Sasha heads back to a homeland she doesn’t know, a family she’s never met, and a job she’s (initially) wildly ill-suited to hold. Ting doesn’t exoticize China for the wide-eyed Sasha, instead opting to turn the “wow, isn’t this so weird and different” lens squarely on her family, which also includes her striving half-sister Carol (Lynn Chen), two other half-siblings she barely knows, and her father’s latest girlfriend (Lulu, his youngest yet, a recurring theme in Sasha’s life). And, of course, there’s Teddy himself, whose unpredictable nature seems mostly rooted in his desire to do well (financially) by his family, a hope that typically finds him doing poorly by them (and his faithful housekeeper, his dutiful employees, even potential clients) in every other category.
Sasha may be deflated by her new lot in life, but her vivacious old self can’t help but peek out, and not always to flattering effect. For every instance of her taking an amusing selfie to share with her (not totally idiotic, just somewhat basic) friends back home, there’s also one that finds her huffing at the breakfast table that “no one has avocados!!” Sasha is just as funny as she is endearing, but she’s got some serious growing up to do. Ting’s affection for her character and Akana’s ability to make Sasha look silly and immature without abandoning her flinty charm keep the film bobbing right along, even as it hits plenty of familiar beats.
Tasked with learning every inch of the family business, Sasha is expected to start from the bottom, stapling price tags to the ears of the stuffed animals that have paid her way through life, and which she initially finds no problem with billing as junky or boring. It turns out that Teddy’s business, which has served his large family well over the years, has fallen into staid old patterns, and it’s Sasha who comes up with some plans to spice it up. Despite her new venture, Sasha’s old dichotomies remain at work, and while she approaches the possibility of making an entirely new line of novelty items for the family biz with plenty of zest, she also does it with same kind of blind immaturity that has marred her other attempts at growing up. It’s easy for Sasha to drag the factory’s beleaguered designers to Hong Kong for a day of inspiration, it’s much harder for her to understand why she can’t make sweeping changes just because she wants to. It’s simple for her to explain away why pastels are still hot during Christmas, it’s not nearly as seamless to turn those ideas into actual items.
The mostly ebullient film does touch upon darker dramas: from Teddy’s pattern of ditching one wife and child for another has widespread implications, routinely testing Carol and Sasha’s burgeoning relationship, and exploring how even the seemingly expendable Lulu has plenty going on under the surface, the 95-minute feature offers a lot to chew on, but not everything lands. The third act is crammed with twists and revelations that ultimately seem forced, and can only offer truncated reconciliations. And yet there’s something to be said for the pleasure of watching Sasha, still a bit silly and definitely in need of more life experience, succeed on her own terms and in her very own movie.
“Go Back to China” had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.