Anna Akana and Lynn Chen discuss feminism and Go Back to China


The stars of the SXSW comedy Go Back to China sit down to discuss the wave of Asian-American films and how theirs was an eye-opening experience.

Emily Ting’s Go Back to China provides more than just laughs. The story of a spoiled Asian-American (played by Anna Akana) who has to work in her family’s Chinese toy factory to make ends meet is more relatable than you think. Go Back to China looks at familial traditions and resentments, the Chinese labor force, and the relationships that can bond between disparate relatives. It’s darling and looks amazing!

During the film’s SXSW premiere, we sat down with stars Anna Akana and Lynn Chen to ask them about working with female directors, Chinese locations, and more.

What made you want to work with Emily on this movie?

Anna Akana: I read the script and I immediately noticed that there’s no love story, and I love that you don’t miss it. I have a very complicated relationship with my own parents who are immigrants; I’m first-generation and I felt it communicated the complexity of that kind of relationship in a really nuanced way.

Lynn Chen: I was actually watching Emily’s first movie, It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. I had been watching it and I didn’t know who Emily was and I was like, “Who is Emily Ting?” I Googled her and I was like, “Hmmm, I gotta meet this woman.” The next day I got an email from a mutual friend of ours named Dave Boyle, who I’ve worked with several times, and he said, “Hey, Lynn, do you know who Emily Ting is? She asked me if I would give you her script.” I was like, “wait, this is the same Emily Ting?” I read the script and said yes just a few days later. It was pretty crazy.

Can you talk about your journey making this movie in a time when we’re finally expanding who gets to tell stories?

LC: I feel like with the success of Crazy Rich Asians and then we had Searching at the same exact time in theaters, that was a real moment, and that was after we had been filming. When we were in China making this movie, for myself personally, it was another year of making indie films with an Asian-American cast, which I’ve been doing for a long time now. It’s like watching everyone have their success; Lulu’s [Wang] movie getting bought and all the other things that are happening, it’s like seeing our friends, people we’ve been working with for so long, get the platform that we feel we’ve been working so hard to try to get to. It’s exciting, but when we were actually filming it wasn’t like “We’re doing this for that.” It was just another opportunity to make a movie that we wanted to tell.

Anna, what has it been like transitioning from YouTube to a starring role?

AA: I’ve been doing YouTube and acting simultaneously for the last 10 years. It’s just that YouTube’s what’s taken off because of our lack of representation in the traditional space. Being the lead of any story, as an actor, is a dream come true but then doing one that also speaks to a family dynamic that’s familiar and puts out messages about family dysfunction, and also being an Asian family on-screen, is awesome. The transition process hasn’t been so extreme because I’ve been doing bit parts my whole life, but now we’re at a point where we are being offered more lead roles and we do have the opportunity. As Lynn said she’s going out for more hero girls and commercials versus the sidekick or the best friend. It’s been a great place and a great time to be.

The production design and costumes are out of this world!

LC: Emily is very specific about what she wants you to be wearing and the color palette. She’s got a great sense of style down to the necklace. Every single thing she was there hovering with a particular design scheme in mind. When she saw it, she was like “that’s it!” Your [Anna] fitting took forever!

AA: So long! That is the opposite of my style so it’s funny, I felt like a little Emily carbon clone on-set because she’d show up and I’d be there like “I’m dressed exactly like you with the same hairstyle right now.” The mansion was awesome! That’s her real father’s house. The factory’s her father’s factory.

How did you two work on the sisterly relationship between your characters?

LC: What’s funny is that when Emily told me Anna was playing Sasha I got so excited because I already knew Anna. But we didn’t know each other well; we had met twice. It felt similar to what the role would be like, in that we’re totally in each other’s world but we actually don’t know each other. I know we’ll get along, but I’m not sure, and we’re going to China! Let’s find out! I knew she was going to be a fantastic actress to play and work with. I wasn’t nervous at all. It wasn’t like we had to work on the relationship because the part was working on that relationship.

AA: It’s interesting too because you play my older sister and I was like, “oh, that’s great because Lynn is someone I admire.” The first time we met each other, Lynn moderated a Q&A and was so prepared and so thoughtful, had really great questions. You’re [Lynn] very good and moderated, I felt very taken care of by you. So when they were like “Lynn Chen is your older sister,” I was like great! I know Lynn. I feel safe with Lynn and I think that’s great because we had so many deep, heavy scenes…and then we have to get into that fight at the end. And we had pretty much the same diets. It was great.

LC: Whenever the food came we would get so excited. “Anna, the food’s here! Let’s do the scene. Hurry up. Let’s do the scene so we can eat!”

What was it like working on a movie where the conceit is women in business?

AA: It was great to not have to be worried about the male gaze on you as you do love scenes or worry about being an accessory to a man in a story. A lot of our conversations became more about “okay, how is the dialogue working in this? What is my character’s motivations? What am I feeling here?” The absence of any sort of romantic plot at all I was able to put that totally out of my mind and I’ve never been able to do that on any other set.

Was there a specific moment that was incredibly difficult to pull off?

LC: There were some days where there were a lot of sound issues in the factory and we kept having to start and stop and rev up. Our sound guy… was it Airplane? We had funny names for the crew.

AA: No, Saturday!

LC: It was Saturday! We had crewmembers who had nicknames. Saturday would be like “Ah, we have to do it again!” We’d be like “We just did this 100 times!” That was a little challenging.

AA: It was hard to act with non-actors in a different language. My character understands Chinese. I obviously do not. So I had to memorize their dialogue but when they interact with me I have to be like, okay, this is what they’re saying. Imagine that they’re saying it as they’re saying it to you, and also if they didn’t speak English it was trying to build that rapport between us [which] was a little difficult.

LC: I speak Chinese, or I can understand it, so everyone talking around us and saying lines in Chinese. I can’t even imagine how difficult that is.

AA: I just had to be like [monotone] “this is what they’re saying to you.”

LC: You’re like they’ve stopped talking, I’ll start talking.

Can you speak to the movie’s presentation of the Chinese factory system?

LC: I was a little worried about coming to shoot in China because I’d heard from all my friends who had done productions there that there’s no union. So they’ll just work you to the bone. They don’t care if you sleep. You don’t eat. All these nightmare stories. And because both Anna and I are with SAG-AFTRA, the union, we still had to work on their rules, so it was an ideal situation to dip our feet into Chinese production for that reason. I remember hearing from the other actors who live in Hong Kong, they were like “this is nice. We don’t get to stop and eat six hours after we’ve checked in.” It was definitely a glimpse into what it could be like. Anna and I would feel so bad when the crew would still be working and they’d be like “No, Anna and Lynn must eat because it’s been six hours. The rest of you keep going.” You could see the cultural difference.

AA: It was also interesting being in the factory; they repainted it in the color scheme of the movie and the factory [workers] actually commented, “Oh, how nice. We’re so use to it being drab.” It looks like it looks on-film but a little shoddier because production design did some stuff with it. I felt very humbled and a privileged little American walking in there being like [snooty] “We’re making a movie so all of you have to stop your actual work and play background for us.” It was a really gratifying experience in the sense of, oh, yes, I’m very privileged. I’m sorry America, I’ll never take some of these things for granted again.

Anna, what was it like working with Richard Ng who plays your dad?

AA: Richard’s great. I didn’t know this when I met him [but] he’s a very big deal. He’s a very big deal in China. I remember we were shooting exteriors outside the noodle shop and huge crowds were starting to form. I was like “What are these people doing? Have they never seen movies being made?” And the crew was like “No, Richard’s a star.” I was like “Oh!” I’m glad I went into it with no idea because I felt we were equal partners, and in the scenes I felt I was able to disrespect him and play the scene accordingly. I feel like if I had known about his reverence in China maybe I might have been more timid to do so. He was fantastic to work against and he really shines in the movie. You can see he’s a veteran. He’s a prolific actor.

What’s it been like to see this progression from making male-dominated movies to seeing audiences demand more women in film?

LC: Anna’s already been a director before we were doing this. I will say, for myself, Emily directly inspired me to become a director. I wrote and directed my first feature this past year called I Will Make You Mine and Emily is one of my producers. So when we were on-set I would sit and shadow her. Just watching someone do that makes you feel like “I can do this!” Knowing that Anna does it and Anna was actually producing and making videos while we were making our movie. When you see other people do it that’s when you believe “I can do this, too. If she can do it, maybe I can do it.”

AA: I watched Wonder Woman and I cried.

What’s it been like showing this at SXSW where so much of the slate is women directed?

AA: Sometimes I’m like “is this a fad? Is this going to end?” It’s like when Obama got elected; I felt like I was a part of history. Now I also feel like that. We’re in a movement in a time where women and women of color, in particular, are coming up and we’re making our voices heard and we’re down to support each other and be there for each other. I remember when I first started it was all about “there can be only one seat at the table for this woman, and especially an Asian woman there can be only one of us.” Everyone’s raising each other up and with Crazy Rich Asians we made it very loud and clear we’re going to vote with our dollars and our dollars matter. It feels like we’re paving the way.

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