SXSW review: Go Back to China is a delightful time


Emily Ting’s Go Back to China is a hilarious tale of generational resentment, feminine competition, and individuality you’ll love.

Discovering a new voice in cinema is one of the unsung joys of film criticism, and director Emily Ting is a voice you should listen to. On the surface, her latest feature Go Back to China will draw comparisons to Crazy Rich Asians, but it perfectly fits into the panoply of amazing American cinema with Asian-American leads (which also includes the likes of Searching and the upcoming The Farewell). Go Back to China is a pastel-coated confection that deals with familial resentment and feminine autonomy in ways that are relatable and lively to watch.

YouTube star Anna Akana plays Sasha Li, a spoiled Chinese-American who spends her days hunting for jobs in the fashion world and partying at night. When her father cuts her off, she’s forced to “go back to China” and work in the family toy factory.

Emphasizing the universality of film and its stories, it’d be easy to watch Go Back to China and see where it could be made with an all-white cast. Sasha Li is no different from Elle Woods or Veruca Salt in that she has little interest in actually finding out who she is. Turned down for countless interviews due to her lack of job experience, Sasha drowns her problems in parties where her popularity acts as currency. But when Sasha bumps into a woman who insults her with the line from the title it’s evident why casting this with an Asian lead is so important.

Akana is more than just utterly gorgeous, she’s incredibly fearless and spunky. Sasha starts out the film rocking cool clothes and a “screw you” attitude that Akana nails with little more than an eyebrow raise. Once she’s stuck with her Chinese family, the tables turn and Akana must reign in the performance and show a complete transition as Sasha moves from princess to entrepreneur.

Ting’s story is all about a woman finding out who she is and what she’s good at. As Sasha starts discovering her love for designing toys, Akana’s entire attitude changes. There’s a lightness around her as she becomes passionate about what she’s doing. Her interactions with the other members of her family, including her half-sister, Carol (earnestly played by Lynn Chen) and her father’s young mistress, Lulu (Kendy Cheung) are vibrant.

Ting, who acts as director and writer, tells a story that shows how families are alike and, like Crazy Rich Asians, she emphasizes the extremities of wealth disparity. Sasha is more than comfortable in her L.A. home, funded by her father, and even when she arrives in the Shenzhen province where her family lives, it’s obvious they’re wealthy. Yet Ting uses this central conceit of wealth to examine the need to accumulate money as a form of familial love and respect. Sasha’s father, played with a barrage of emotions including hostility and sadness by Richard Ng, reiterates time and again that he’s done everything for his family.

Based on the fabulous production design, compliments of Adri Siriwatt, there’s an aristocratic vibe to his home, and as Sasha spends more time with the company’s employees, it’s evident that her father has become the boss everyone hates.

What’s fascinating with Ting’s script is how it shows the different social strata of China. There’s the factory bosses who have made a success of themselves and provided for their families, but aren’t willing to pay that forward. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the factory workers, many of whom are farmers who only see their children once a year.

Go Back to China will connect to anyone who’s believed their parents don’t understand them. Ting dives deep into the lives of her characters, giving all of them purpose and emotions. Even characters you hate still possess redeeming qualities; they’re human and flawed. Add in a healthy dose of humor and one-liners and you have a family comedy that everyone will enjoy. Go Back to China and enjoy the trip!

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