Film Review: ‘Go Back to China’ (2019), dir. Emily Ting
Going blindly into Go Back to China may be an interesting experience. With such an abrasive title, filmgoers might be a bit wary about going to a film so aggressively named–especially in our explosive political climate. But while casual racism against Asian Americans are very lightly mentioned in the film (there exists an early scene where main character Sasha gets told by a bedraggled white lady to ‘go back to China’), that’s not the goal of a film like Go Back to China. Instead, director Emily Ting digs a little deeper, diving headfirst into the even messier world of family politics.
Much like the plot of VH1’s fan-favorite You’re Cut Off, Go Back to China has a premise that is supposedly rich with schadenfreude. Los Angeles rich girl Sasha Li (Anna Akana), a newly minted design school graduate, finds herself in a lot of trouble when she gets financially cut off by her father. Family patriarch Teddy (Richard Ng) gives her an ultimatum: go back to China to work for the family toy company, or else her divorced mother (Kelly Hu) will be similarly punished. Work long enough and her trust fund will be reinstated. With no real job prospects and no rent money, Sasha reluctantly makes the journey to go back to China. There, she is forced to reconnect with her tyrannical father, her long-estranged half-sister Carol (Lynn Chen), and face her father’s confusing new family.
If the story of Go Back to China sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it seems to be based on a tween comedy television trope that gets brought up every now and then. There’s a tendency for Hollywood films to follow the obvious storyline progression–spoiled brat gets cut off, spoiled brat is forced to work for once (with comedic results), spoiled brat learns that money isn’t everything and spoiled brat becomes just a little bit closer to a human being (Cow Belles (2006), Material Girls (2006), From Prada to Nada (2011)). But Go Back to China tackles that same premise from a different angle.
Supplemented by the fact that the film is based on actual people and Ting’s own life, Go Back to China stands out from the rest by presenting the situation from a more realistic, grounded perspective. Instead of choosing to focus on Sasha and her coming to terms with work (and the comedy that comes with that), Ting turns her attention to her characters’ growth and relationships with each other. First-time lead Akana plays rich girl Sasha as a very well-rounded, real person, if only because Ting knows exactly what kind of person Sasha should be (she’s based on the director herself). Also interesting to note–never in the course of the film does Sasha appear unlikeable. She’s naïve about how the world works, yes (she doesn’t believe in unpaid internships, so she literally has no experience), but she’s a kind-hearted person. When Sasha makes the inevitable transformation from spoiled rich girl to person, it isn’t so hard to believe. The same could be said about Lynn Chen’s slightly resentful, yet ever-helpful Carol. It also would be easy for the film to turn into one that pits the two against each other, but there’s a sisterly bond between the two that comes naturally.
But the star of the show is, of course, Teddy. Ng captures the emperor-like prowess of Teddy despite being a comic actor in his native Hong Kong. Much like Sasha and Carol, Teddy is a character that is carefully measured–he’s one to be feared, yet one to be admired. Though he has a thin relationship with his family, he ultimately provides for them nonetheless. There’s also a constant air of uncertainty surrounding his character: will he be madly flinging plushies off the table, or will he be calm in the next scene? Teddy is a character that most Asians can uniquely relate to, especially for first or second generation Anglo-Asian children. Although he loves his family, he trades off spending time with them in order to provide for them. Though the character of Teddy risks alienation for certain viewers, Ting’s decision to keep Teddy as domineering and uncompromising as he is will definitely pay off.
Additionally, Go Back to China deals with themes that are soundly relatable to these same audiences. Parental sacrifice, finance over family, and differing cultural values are all explored here to a certain extent. The plights of the Chinese factory workers, Filipino fashion designers, and Teddy’s new twenty-something year-old wife are not ignored. Familial sacrifice ties all of them together, and it becomes clear about Ting’s personal idea of the topic as we learn about it through Sasha’s eyes.
Go Back to China is unabashedly representative of the Asian American experience (as well as Ting’s own personal life story), but the result is a film that is wholly realistic, heartwarming, and true to life. Despite a slightly cop-out story resolution and some awkward line-deliveries from the secondary characters, Go Back to China is largely a wholesome envisioning of modern day parenting, and a likeable late coming-of-age story. Ting once mentioned in an interview that Go Back to China is one of the stories that she set out to tell from the beginning–and she’s definitely done it justice.
Check out our interview with director Emily Ting HERE.
Follow the film on Twitter: @gobackchinafilm
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!