Interview: How Emily Ting’s Sophomore Feature ‘Go Back to China’ Explores What Familial Duty Means in an Asian Household
Go Back to China is director Emily Ting’s most personal film to date: toy factory and all.
After failing to find a job in Los Angeles, spoiled designer Sasha (Anna Akana) is forced by her father Teddy (Richard Ng) to return to China against her wishes to work for the family’s toy factory. The stakes are high: go back to China and work for her father or risk getting her divorced mother (Kelly Hu) financially cut off. Sasha’s choice is obvious. Once back in China, Sasha’s problems aren’t over–she has to come to terms with her father’s new idiosyncratic family, reconnect with her estranged half-sister (Lynn Chen), and of course, face the family patriarch himself.
This was the reality for Ting when she was 24. While parts of the film are exaggerated for dramatic effect, Go Back to China is very much an autobiography. Like Sasha, she too was forced to go back to Shenzhen to work at her father’s toy factory as a toy designer. After coming back to Los Angeles in her early 30s, Ting started getting into filmmaking once again with her debut feature It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (2015) starring Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg. Although It’s Already Tomorrow had good reception in the film festival circuit, she already had her mind set on what was coming next. Go Back to China, as she puts it, was the story she had got into filmmaking to tell.
But Ting didn’t simply want to recreate her life events on-screen. While the title may sound abrasive and political, Go Back to China is a film that draws attention to the way that Asian families operate. From an Asian-American perspective, Ting points out the sacrifices that the film’s characters make for the sake of family. There’s a common motif here that extends outside of her own family and into the very heart of Asian familial culture. While people from more Western backgrounds might not be able to sympathize with family patriarch Teddy’s heartless ways or the Asian parental mindset, most Anglo-Asians can find bits of their own families in the cast of characters–whether that’s in the strict Teddy, the reliable Carol, or the rebellious Sasha.
Ahead of Go Back to China‘s premiere at SXSW 2019, we had the opportunity to chat with Ting about the film’s real-life inspirations, the extensive casting process, and her experience working as a female Asian director in a post-Crazy Rich Asians world.
Oh, and read on to find out more about where you can get those adorable toy sloth plushies from the film.
We love how the title of the film, Go Back to China, is a so straightforward command and in-your-face. Could you tell us a little bit about how the title came to be?
It’s funny–I was really unsure about the title. I wrote the script pretty much untitled. When I was ready to send it out, I was playing around with some safer, more boring titles like Family Business or something along those lines, and just on a whim, I titled it Go Back To China because this is literally a film about a girl going back to China. I think the first person that I sent the script to was my manager and I even told them it’s just a working title because I can’t think of an appropriate one. I was sure it was terrible and that everyone was going to tell me to change it but my manager was like, “So good!” It’s so in your face, and it makes me really want to read it. It quickly went from being a working title to the permanent title.
But I think on a subliminal level, I started writing the first draft of the script in December 2016 right after the election. I didn’t set out to write anything political because if you watch the movie it’s a family drama. I think that [the election] really did cloud the decision because I felt like we were in this new era. Even that scene in the beginning where [Sasha] was told to go back to China was sort of a reaction to this new world order at the time. But that was it in the political extent of the film, because it was always going to be a very personal drama.
I’m just hoping that we will be able to find a distributor who won’t be afraid to distribute a movie called Go Back to China!
In an interview with SXSW, you’ve mentioned that this was the most personal film that you’ve made and that it was about your own experiences working in China. Could you tell us a little bit about what these experiences were, and how they turned into this film?
Shortly after graduating from film school, I was summoned by my father to go back to China and work for the family business. I would say that Sasha is a very, very exaggerated version of myself at 24. I wasn’t really a party girl who bought thousands of dollars of drinks–that’s really for dramatic effect. But for me, it wasn’t so much about being cut off, it was more about that familial duty of coming from a Chinese family. I wanted to pursue film, but I felt like I had an obligation to go and help with the family business. I went back to China to work for the family toy business when I was 24 very begrudgingly and I thought that I was only going to do it for a year. I thought my dad had ruined my life, but I ended up staying for various reasons because I kind of liked the work. I would say I’m not as good of a sketch artist as Sasha is in the film, but I did all the product development. I worked with the sketch artists and came up with all the designs and concepts… it was kind of fun!
But at some point, about a month when I was about to turn 30, I finally went to my dad and said I want to move to Los Angeles and pursue independent film again. I felt like I lived someone else’s life for so long and I was never really given the chance to pursue what I wanted to do. And poof, my 20s were over. He ended up letting me go and I moved to LA when I was 30 and got back into film that way. I still traveled to China five to six times a year to help with product development and continued working for the family business up until last year. I ended up working for my dad for 12 years.
I think the most personal scene for me in the movie is the one where Carol tells her dad that she’s had enough. She’s ready to leave because they shouldn’t mix family and business. It was only until very recently that I was able to have more of a clean break to finish this movie and get ready for motherhood. That’s the real story, in a nutshell, of my experience.
Sasha is where I was when I was 24 and Carol was where I am now. I just split myself into two different sisters in the movie.
Is the father character inspired by your own father?
It is inspired by my own father. However, people who know my father who’ve seen the film feel like I was maybe too easy on the character. I’m not trying to vilify my father in any way, but even just on a physical level my dad is over six feet tall and he is very much larger than life.
For Richard [Ng], I think he did an amazing job in the film but he is a comedic actor. He’s been in 200 films in Hong Kong usually as the lovable comedic character actor, so that’s how people know him or see him. People who are very familiar with him always saw him as very lovable, whereas they’re all scared to death of my dad. The thing is, my dad is not a one-note mean dad. There’s also a very charming and humorous side to him that I think Richard really brought out.
In real life when my dad gets angry, he gets really scary. I think at one of the test screenings someone said that he certainly throws toys around a lot, but that’s what he does every day in the office. You’re desensitized to it. When he yells at the maid, that’s all very much part of who he is.
I actually simplified his life a little bit because I realized it’s all a bit more complicated. In the movie, he has four children, but in real life, he has six children and was married five times, but it’s too much to introduce that many characters and wives, so I combined siblings into one character. The little boy who plays Christian is my actual little brother. It’s a real family affair.
How did Anna Akana, Lynn Chen, and Richard Ng get involved with Go Back to China?
I’ve never worked with Anna before, and to be honest I was not that familiar with her work since I’m a little older than her YouTube demographic. But at the time when I was making my dream list of actors for Sasha, I was going on a lot of general meetings with digital companies, and at every digital company, they were telling us to work together because I guess she’s Asian and I’m Asian. I’m like okay… so I started looking her up. Then I went down a rabbit hole of watching all of her YouTube videos. I’m like, “Oh my god this girl’s so funny!” She’s so watchable, and to me, she just embodied Sasha’s bubbliness and personality.
Anna hadn’t done a lot of films, and in the films that she’s done she’s more of a supporting character, but I watched whatever I could get my hands on. She had a very memorable scene in Antman, she was in Hello My Name is Doris, and she was in a movie on Netflix. From the little I saw, I knew she could act–a lot of YouTube stars cannot act. She’s not a stilted YouTube personality.
I decided to offer the role to Anna first–she was my first choice. It was a straight offer. I didn’t do an audition because this was a very low budget film and I wanted the lead to be someone with a name who had a following. She read the script right away and really responded to it. We had our first meeting over Skype because I was in China at the time doing some prepping for the locations for the film and she was here in LA. She had some small general notes, and after that, she came on board and she was attached. She was the first person we went out to.
For the sister role, that was very easy. I was familiar with Lynn’s work, and she was very recognizable in the film festival circuit. I sent her the offer through my friend Dave Boyle who’s worked with her many times. He passed her the script on the first day and that Monday she wrote back and was in.
But the father role actually took a really long time to cast and we actually had to push production a few times just because we couldn’t find a father. It’s so fitting for a movie about father issues that we can’t find a father.
I wanted a veteran Hong Kong actor who’s got sort of a name over there. The first person I thought of was actually Richard. I had already worked with him on my last film It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong since his daughter is friends with our producer, so he had a small cameo in the film. But the consensus internally was that he was a little too old. Richard in real life has white hair and a white beard. He looks his age: like a grandpa! We needed someone in their late 60s/early 70s, so we started sending offers out to other main Hong Kong actors.
Maybe the first couple of actors who we sent it out to we were aiming too high because they just never read the script after a month. When you send out an offer you can’t really offer it to anyone else, so you just have to wait. We did send it out to a big famous Hong Kong actor who actually expressed interest but just would not commit. Every time we would give him a deadline he’d be like, “could you just give me some more time to think about it” and we’d give him two more weeks. The two weeks would be up and he’d still want more time. I think he sat on the offer for over two months. At some point, I was like I need to shoot this film. It just took so long that finally one day I was looking up pictures of Richard when he was younger and I’m like… “we could just give him a haircut and a new wardrobe!” I wrote him a personal email that said I wrote this script and it was very personal to me… would you be willing to read it and consider the part of Teddy?
I will forever be grateful because Richard is at that age where he’s semi-retired. He’s turning down offers all the time for TV shows because he doesn’t need to work and it just takes too much out of him. But he really likes helping young filmmakers because when he was young breaking into the industry he received a lot of help, so now he really likes to pay back. He did me a huge favor by coming on board and it was a very grueling shoot for him because he’s old, his body’s not doing well, and we’re shooting 12 hour days on set. There were days where he was in every single scene. I felt really bad and I was like, “Oh god, please take a nap in-between takes and we’ll wake you when we’re ready to set up for the next shot.” But he came and he did his work.
What it was like working with Anna, Richard, and Lynn on set?
It’s funny because Anna and Richard came from two different schools of acting and experience. For Anna, this is her first lead role. So for her, I think she gave it 120% because she viewed it as such a great opportunity for her and she blew me away. I think there’s always going to be a prejudice against someone who started out in YouTube because people who are not familiar with her work would say, “okay, do we need to schedule more time because she’s a YouTuber?” But I’m like no, you’re prejudiced. She’s a professional. On the first day of shooting, if there was any doubt amongst any crew it was squashed. She was such a professional–knowing her lines but also being very receptive to notes. Even times when she didn’t totally agree she would agree to give me a different take just so I have options in the editing room. She was very very easy and pleasurable to work with.
Richard, on the other hand, is a veteran who’s done these hundreds of times. But they make movies very differently in Hong Kong than we do in America, apparently. A lot of the studio comedies are done in a way more like a factory, where a lot of the times they would just fix a camera on the character and they would just run lines until they get it right, and then move on to the next line. I’d never seen a movie directed this way before! But Richard’s like, “Yeah, that’s how we do it!”
There they do it very economically; they think in terms of editing. I did not direct the movie that way and Richard had to adapt to the way we do things, which is where we’d run the entire scene with your scene partner. I think that took a little bit of adjustment on his end. In terms of performances, I would say all three of my leads were professionals. They really know what they are doing and it was a pleasure to see all three of them gel together since all three of them came from different backgrounds. One came from the studio system in Hong Kong, one came from YouTube, and one came from independent film.
Go Back to China is a film about sacrificing for family–Teddy sacrifices his family relationships for finance, Lulu marries Teddy to provide for her brother, and the Filipino designers work in China to provide for their children in the Philippines.
Why is this theme so important to share with your audience?
For me, I think supporting your family has a very different meaning in Asia than it does here. I find a lot of Asian families get caught up in supporting their family financially versus being supportive. Here in America I would see a lot of the ways I would see my friends interact with their parents, and the way that I interact with my parents is very different. Very much like Sasha, I never saw my dad that much. If he came into town on business once a year we were lucky, but he would send gifts or he would send money versus “how about we go see a movie together and spend some time?”
Like Sasha growing up here in America, there’s a certain kind of resentment that grows. But he’s also the product of his generation and his upbringing, which is that you need to make money to support your kids. Once I went back to China I realized it didn’t just come from the top from the ambitious business owners. It goes all the way to the factory workers. We have factory workers who haven’t seen their kids for three years because they’re migrant workers and they leave their kids behind with the grandparents to go to Shenzhen to work. And even for my dad’s girlfriends or wives–when I look at them, I’m like, “You’re 25… What are you doing with an old man?”
You think of them as prostituting themselves a little bit, but most of them have an ulterior reason. The whole thing with Lulu (Kendy Cheung) needing to send her brother to school is very much based on my dad’s latest relationship. She’s in her 20s and she’s dating my dad and she’s very open about it. She’s doing this to save her brother because otherwise, her brother would have no future. People do different things to help their family financially, whether it’s going to a factory for three years or opening your own factory or marrying a really old man.
Were all of these plushies designed to be specifically made for the movie? Where can we get one?
So that whole Christmas collection that Sasha designs in the movie was actually taken from our Christmas collection in 2017 or 2018. I just went into our collection and chose what I thought would be the cutest one and I revised them a little bit for the movie with the scarf. The idea of doing sloths and stuff all came from me but I worked with a sketch artist. Here in Southern California, we sold it to Fred Meyer and all the Ralphs. I think Dollar General carried them too for 2018.
However, we also made a limited amount to give away over the course of promoting this movie, so if you come to one of our local LA screenings we give them out at every single festival screenings for people who ask questions in the audience!
Did you face any obstacles as a female Asian-American director? Do you think we’ll be seeing more Asian-American stories in the future?
For my first feature, I had to completely self-finance because no one knew who I was and I didn’t have any managers or agents. I kind of expected that. We made it on a shoestring budget, and [It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong] ended up being quite successful! I was able to get signed by a manager and agent because of that movie, so I thought for my second movie now that I’m in the Hollywood system it’s going to be easy. I’d already proven myself the first time around.
So when I was sending the script out [for Go Back to China], even my own managers, agents, and reps were like it’s so Asian. It’s too Asian. They were not very optimistic about its commercial potential. Keep in mind this was before Crazy Rich Asians, which came out in 2018. Even my reps, who were the gatekeepers, were not finding financing for it. It was very disheartening. But they did send it out to a few production companies and financiers around town and it was unanimously passed on by everyone for the same reason. It was a hard sell. Who can you cast in it? Oh, Anna Akana, she’s a YouTuber, she’s not really famous. And you know what? I had ladies from Crazy Rich Asians on my list. There was just no one famous enough who could anchor a movie that they would want to finance because it’s an all-Asian cast.
I couldn’t believe it. I thought I paid my dues and here I am again. Either I move on and write something not Asian and more commercial, or I had to pay for it again myself, which I promised myself I would never do again because it’s very nerve-wracking. You throw your life savings into something and no one knows if you’re going to get it back. So I doubled down. We did end up making our money back with It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, so I just rolled that money into the second feature. If this movie doesn’t make its money back then there it all goes.
Then, we shot the movie in the spring of 2018 and of course, Crazy Rich Asians came out in August of 2018. And I do think the landscape has changed. All of a sudden, this movie who everyone said was a hard sell is starting to get interest. People were like yeah, this sounds like an indie version of Crazy Rich Asians! They wanted to see more. We got it to SXSW, and I think we have 12 more film festivals coming up between March and June. We were able to land a sales agent pretty easily, and we’ve been getting a lot of press interest. I think because of the success of Crazy Rich Asians people are definitely being a lot more open to Asian content and they’re not being scared away by an all-Asian cast. That movie has proven that that audience is out there. If it’s a universal story, it can transcend racial lines.
You can catch the world premiere of Go Back to China on March 9, 2019 at SXSW. It is in competition for the SXSW Gamechanger Award and the Grand Jury Award.
Follow the film on Twitter: @gobackchinafilm
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu via phone call on Feb 28, 2019.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!