After the well-deserved success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” it is a literal joy to see the momentum of diverse representation continue with “Crazy Rich Asians” co-writer Adele Lim’s directorial debut, “Joy Ride.” This particular Asian American-led film is making history with an all-female cast, including a non-binary actor.
At the SXSW world premiere, Lim joked that all they needed was an ally in the form of a rich white guy to produce their film (thanks, Seth Rogen). With his signature deep chuckle, Rogen lovingly stood back and didn’t attempt to steal the spotlight from the cast as they basked in their shining moment.
“Joy Ride” is a prime example of how important representation is on screen and proves that Asian American comedians can be just as funny, raunchy, and successful as their white male counterparts.
The film’s opening scene is a flashback to 1993 when best friends Lolo (Sherry Cola) and Audrey (Ashley Park) originally meet in a small predominately White town aptly called White Hills. The two instantly connect on a playground since they are the only two Chinese American kids around. The fact that Audrey is adopted by White parents is no issue for the spunky, outspoken Lolo — who punches a little boy in the face at the first mention of a racist comment towards them.
As the girls grow up together, they hold onto their commonalities despite being complete opposites in personality. Lolo is an outspoken sex-positive artist with a stronger connection to her heritage than Audrey. Lolo uses her art to subvert traditional gender roles and expectations of women in her culture as well as ignite conversations about sex. Audrey is a reserved and successful lawyer who keeps up with her predominately White male colleagues usually named Michael or Kevin.
Screenwriters Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao quickly establish the comedic tone of racial commentary that is present throughout the film and show no mercy in how these characters face daily judgment and labeling, even if others do not mean to be intentionally hurtful. They also successfully spotlight the barriers Audrey and Lolo attempt to break as women in their careers.
While Audrey is appreciative that her colleagues threw her a birthday party (despite it being “Mulan” themed), she strives to aim higher by solidifying a deal with a Chinese client in order to become a partner in her firm. Alongside Lolo working as her translator, she books a flight to Beijing and decides to kill two birds with one stone by also searching for her birth mom. The friends are joined by Audrey’s college bestie Kat (Stephanie Hsu) and Lolo’s lonesome cousin Deadeye (charmingly played by non-binary stand-up comedian Sabrina Wu).
Each character has their unique quirks and contributions to their experience as Asian Americans. While shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens” explore the Asian American experience in the US, “Joy Ride” stands apart by having its characters travel to China and eventually South Korea. This cultural immersion is challenging for Audrey because she feels as though she doesn’t belong anywhere. She is too Asian for America and too White for Asia. This struggle is one of the many important and relatable experiences featured in the film. Each writer and actor brought aspects of their own personal experiences to the story and used improv several times while filming, which heightens the emotion and inclusive narrative to make it that much more genuine.
Aside from the thematic elements surrounding identity and friendship, “Joy Ride” delivers sizzling hot comedy by embracing sex, drugs, cultural immersion, and bridging the gap between young generations and their elders. The crew encounters everything from drug smugglers, to threesomes with members of the Chinese Basketball Association, to vagina tattoos while traveling. The jokes steer clear of slapstick and instead wise attacks on societal stigma and cultural representation at large. They are evenly distributed among the cast with insults, awkward personality quirks, and snide comments to unsuspecting or self-involved acquaintances. The script overflows with comedy and social commentary almost to a fault because there is so much that these talented women want and deserve to say. Because there are no films like this readily available, the attempt to get points across becomes urgent at times and there are few moments where audiences can fully marinate with the impact.
The film’s approach to sex is unique from other raunchy comedies in that there is no end goal to engage in the act. Instead, sex is viewed as natural, fun, and a way for the characters to freely express themselves whether that be through art, open dialogue, with a lover, or with themselves. Kat’s character is a successful actress who is engaged to her Christian Chinese co-star Clarence (Desmond Chiam) who believes she is a virgin. She grapples to balance her high libido with his need for abstinence and her promiscuity becomes a running joke among the friend group even though they support her sexual nature. The men in the film take a backseat to the plot but are still comedic players when introduced into a scene. ”Joy Ride” aces the Bechdel test by featuring a woman more concerned with chasing her professional dreams, heritage, and friendships rather than chasing a man.
Lim’s directing style is fairly traditional in structure and form with some highly creative character sequences, illustrative interludes, and a hilarious K-Pop music video scene. The writing is impressively complex for a comedy and is grounded in more universal themes and broader experiences. For all of those reasons, “Joy Ride” can easily cruise longer than its 95-minute running time. With so much to say and a supremely talented cast embodying lovable and multi-dimensional characters, a sequel is a no-brainer. “Joy Ride” is easily the golden standard for progressive, raunchy comedy and the need for more diverse stories being told on screen.
“Joy Ride” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Lionsgate will release the film in theaters on Friday, July 7.