TCFF 2019 Film Spotlight: ‘Go Back To China’ – Q&A with writer/director Emily Ting

GO BACK TO CHINA

Synopsis: When spoiled rich girl Sasha Li blows through most of her trust fund, she is cut off by her father and forced to go back to China and work for the family toy business.


Review of GO BACK TO CHINA

When I first heard of the title, I did a double take. It has that anti-immigrant sentiment, but yet that provocative title works perfectly in the context of this film (read below on my Q&A about how director Emily Ting arrived on that title). This is the first time I saw Anna Akana (I wasn’t aware she’s a famous YouTube star), but the casting is spot-on as she brings a natural whimsy and playfulness to the drama. Although her character Sasha spoiled and even delusional at first (as illustrated in the hilarious opening scene where she goes on a job interview at a fashion house), you can’t help but empathize with her and wants to see her do well.

L-R: Lynn Chen, Anna Akana and Richard Ng in a still from GO BACK TO CHINA

This is a coming-of-age story of sort, with Sasha being forced to terms with her father’s wishes of working at his factory, and finally finding her footing in the family business. The fact that the film was shot in Shenzen, China definitely makes the film feels very authentic. There are some tough moments between her and her old-fashioned father (Richard Ng), especially in regards to him constantly getting divorced and remarried. Naturally they differ in what each consider familial duty, with Sasha’s loyal step-sister Carol (Lynn Chen) sometimes caught in the middle. At times the story feels like an adaptation of the prodigal son from the Bible.

If I had to nitpick however, at times the fact that Sasha gets acclimated in the business and excels as a toy designer feels too good to be true. Somehow the toy factory crisis in the third act is resolved all too conveniently as well. But those are small quibbles in an otherwise charming and entertaining familial drama. Having grown up with an entrepreneurial, head-strong grandmother who’s Chinese-Indonesian, I can certainly relate to the story.

This is a terrific sophomore feature from Emily Ting. I really enjoyed her debut film Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, and here she stepped up the game with a more complex story and also a bigger cast. I particularly enjoyed the scenes between Anna Akana and Lynn Chen, two strong Asian-American performers I’d love to see more of. I also have to mention the extremely-underrated Kelly Hu as Sasha’s mother, I wish she had more screen time but glad she’s part of the cast.

It’s wonderful to see more Asian-American stories coming out the past few years. Emily Ting is a gifted filmmaker I hope would continue making films. Oh, and after watching this, I suddenly got the urge of getting a bunch of stuffed animals! 😀

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Interview with Emily Ting

1. Go Back To China was inspired by your own experience and certainly felt personal. Would you share a bit about that experience working in Shenzen at your dad’s company?

I feel like everyone has one story that has shaped the trajectory of their life and defined who they are today. For me, going back to China to work for the family business is that story. I learned a lot about myself in the 12 years I spent working for the family business, and making this film was a really cathartic experience. When I decided to go back to Asia, I thought that meant giving up on my filmmaking aspirations forever. But ironically, that experience ended up inspiring all the films I’ve made since. 

On set with lead actress Anna Akana

2. How did you decide on making the semi-autobiography into a comedy, has that always been your vision from the start?

This was actually my attempt at making a serious drama! But I naturally have a very light touch, so this is just my filmmaking voice coming out. Also, I think that a lot of the comedy is a result of Anna Akana’s performance. She is a comedienne, and she brought a lot of her comedic chops to the role. I don’t think the film would be as funny if someone else had played Sasha.

Anna Akana in a scene inside the factory’s sample room

3. The title is certainly quite provocative, and it’s perfect for this story. How did you come up with that?

I finished the whole script without any idea on what to call the film. I was playing around with some more mundane ideas for the title, like “The Family Business” or something like that. And as almost a joke, I slapped “Go Back to China” on the draft as a working title, since this is a film literally about a girl who goes back to China. But I didn’t think that we could actually call my film that. I think that my manager was the first person I sent the script to and he took to the title right away. And then everyone else that I sent the script to told me they loved the title and that I shouldn’t change it. So it just stuck! I still can’t believe that I got away with making a film called Go Back to China!

4. I LOVE the cast here, esp. Anna Akana & Lynn Chen as the sisters. How did their casting come about? I’d love to hear about Richard Ng & Kelly Hu’s casting as well if you wouldn’t mind sharing.

At the time when I was working on the script, I was doing a lot of general meetings at digital companies and Anna Akana’s name kept coming up. I wasn’t familiar with her work, so I looked her up on Youtube and went down a rabbit hole watching her videos. She is immensely watchable and embodied who Sasha is. Even though she has a huge following on Youtube, she hasn’t acted in a lot of traditional films. I took a leap of faith and made an offer. She responded to the material and came on board. I still can’t believe that this is her first lead role in a film!

After Sasha was cast, the role of Carol was much easier to fill. I had been a fan of Lynn Chen for a long time and knew that she would knock the role out of the park. I asked my friend Dave Boyle (who worked with her on several films) to pass the script along to her. She responded in a few days that she was in! Even though I already knew Lynn could act, her performance in this film still blew me away. She made me cry behind the monitor on set many times!

Director Emily Ting on set with her GO BACK TO CHINA cast

The hardest role to fill was the father. I had to push the production several times because we couldn’t get the role cast. The father’s casting process was in a way very reflective of a film about daddy issues! I had wanted a name Asian actor for the role. Actually, one of the first people I thought of was Richard Ng, who is a very beloved veteran Hong Kong actor, and we had worked together on Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong previously. But the internal consensus was that, at almost 80, he was too old for the role. We started sending offers out to younger name Asian actors. But we just couldn’t get anyone to read the script! After months of this, I returned to my initial idea of Richard. I thought, what if we just aged him down through HMU and wardrobe? My producer was on board with this idea, and I wrote an email to him. He read the script in about two weeks and agreed to take on the role. We gave him a new haircut and a more stylish wardrobe, and he was transformed into Teddy instantly. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve just followed my gut and could’ve avoided months of anxiety.

We were really lucky to get Kelly Hu for the mother role. It is a very small role and my casting director didn’t think any name actors would want to take on what is basically a glorified cameo role. But I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. We sent the offer to her on a Thursday, and by the following Tuesday, she signed on. Even though her role would be small, she loved the script and wanted to help the project any way she could.

5. Some of the toys featured in the film are adorable. How did you get them, did any of the ones you designed make it to the movie?

The sloth was actually from our family’s toy company’s Christmas line! I did come up with an idea for a Christmas sloth in real life, and the item was sold at Dollar General, Kroger, and some other stores. All the other toys that you see in the movie were products that were being manufactured at the factory on the days we were shooting. We went around the production line and picked toys that fit with our pastel color palette to appear on camera.

6. What are some of the challenges you faced making this movie compared to Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong, which also has elements from your own personal journey?

The two movies are such different beasts, and both had totally different challenges. Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong was shot in very uncontrolled environments and situations (running around the streets of Hong Kong). We didn’t have any control of the weather, traffic, or the people on the streets. Every day was unpredictable. But it was a very simple movie in terms of coverage, because we just had two people walking and talking. We shot the film in 14 days and only worked 6 – 8 hours on most days. For Go Back to China, the locations were all very controlled, since we shot mostly in locations that my family owned, but it’s a much more complicated film in terms of coverage. This is a much bigger story, with a lot more characters and scenes. We just had so much more to shoot in order to get all the coverage we needed. We shot for 21 days and worked the maximum 12 hours every day. And this is also a much more personal film for me than the last one. This film is about my family and not just a random encounter. It felt more meaningful and the stakes higher.

On set with Lynn Chen and Anna Akana

7. Lastly, with the release of Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell in the past couple of years, and the ongoing diversity/inclusion discussion, do you think the cinematic landscape has changed for Asian filmmakers? 

I definitely think that Crazy Rich Asians opened a lot of doors and the industry is more receptive to Asian American stories. At least now, they can’t use the excuse that Asian stories can’t attract an audience. I have been having a lot of general meetings with companies that are actively looking for Asian content or Asian filmmakers, and it’s certainly an encouraging trend. But at the end of the day, Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell are still the rare anomaly and not the rule yet. However, I’m much more optimistic about the future than ever before.


Thank you for chatting with me, Emily!


TCFF screening times of Go Back To China:
Wednesday October 23rd 12:15 PM

FlixChatter Review: THE FAREWELL (2019)

I knew about this film when it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year. Yet for whatever reason, it sort of fell off my radar until A24 started promoting it vehemently for its theatrical release. I’m so glad they did and this film deserved ALL their backing. It simply deserves to be seen.

The Farewell is writer/director Lulu Wang‘s sophomore directorial work, and it’s one I can readily describe as masterful. The tagline says ‘Based on an actual lie’ which is provocative yet accurate given that it’s Wang’s own personal story. The film opens with a young woman, Billi (Awkwafina) on the streets of NYC chatting on her mobile with her grandma whom se calls Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) in China. The film is mostly in Chinese, though occasionally the characters would be speaking in English as Billi’s family has immigrated to the US. Soon we find out that Nai Nai is dying from lung cancer, but her family decides to hide the grim prognosis from her and plan a fake wedding instead so everyone could gather before she dies.

It’s a deceptively simple premise but one that packs a wallop. It’s a deep, emotional, culturally-resonant film that’s also filled with humor and whimsy. I’m always in awe of filmmakers who can mix pathos, comedy and emotional drama seamlessly and Wang certainly achieved that here. The Farewell feels like an authentic experience of a Chinese family, as well as those of Chinese Americans, especially the second/third generation individuals who have to straddle the two worlds. As someone who wasn’t born in the US but have lived here more than half my life, I totally get the ‘I don’t belong anywhere’ feeling, of being torn by the two cultures.

The film focuses on Billi who has trouble concealing her grief. She’s particularly close to Nai Nai, so despite her parents’ protest, she went ahead and attend the ‘wedding’ in China. I love how the film highlights the family dynamics and how much of the conversations take place in the dining table. My mouth watered seeing all those yummy food on the dining table. It’s so integral in Chinese culture as love and affection is often expressed through food. In this story, ‘the lie’ becomes the one thing that unites the family as they all have to bond together to keep the secret hidden from Nai Nai. There’s several poignant discussion between Billi, her dad and uncle about how it’s practically illegal to do such things in the US. Yet in China, and perhaps another culture, this is not only customary but also a courtesy… ‘a person doesn’t just belong to one self, but to his/her family’ as her uncle points out. It’s the family’s ‘duty’ to carry the burden for the sick one… which is quite a foreign sentiment in the West, but that is the point. This East-West discussion has been done before in other films but it doesn’t feel clichéd nor recycled here.

Apparently this is the first ever PG-rated film out of A24 film, and I can definitely say it’s a film you can bring your whole family to see. I think it’s an accessible film for American audiences, even those who aren’t usually into films with subtitles. The script is punchy, lively and even poetic at times, but remains authentic to the journey/experience of the characters. Though my own grandma is very different from Nai Nai depicted here, I could definitely relate to her relationship with Billi and some of their conversations are downright nostalgic.

I have to devote an entire paragraph just for Awkwafina who’s absolutely perfect here in her first starring role. The first time I saw her was in Crazy Rich Asians in which she was the scene stealer as a gregarious, colorful, sociable BFF. Her performance couldn’t be more different here as Billi is more a recluse who barely smiles and wears practically the same gray/black outfit everyday. She’s truly the heart and soul of the movie as the film is framed from her perspective. It truly displays her range as an actor and I sure hope she continues to gain more leading roles in the future.

The supporting cast are an excellent mix of veteran character actors and newbies. Tzi Ma has been in a plethora of TV and films (I definitely remember him in Arrival and you’ve likely just seen him in the new Mulan trailer). He and Diana Lin are excellent as Billi’s parents, Lin portrays the quintessential strong, no-nonsense Chinese matriarch who actually reminds me of my own grandma. The mother/daughter relationship is one of the major highlights here as well, where things aren’t always rosy but in the end they understand each other. I’m curious about the casting process to find Nai Nai. Shuzhen Zhao‘s quite good in her first ever acting role and she has a believable rapport with Awkwafina which is so key to the story.

I really love Wang’s direction here and I’d even argue she should get nominations as Best Director come award season. Now I’m really curious to check out her directorial debut Posthumous (starring Brit Marling and Jack Huston) that’s available on Amazon Prime. The pacing of this movie is just right, and at 1 hour 38 minutes there’s barely any wasted minute. Her directing style shows some flairs but not overly over-the-top. I like the slo-mo of the family walking towards the camera following a pivotal scene, and the long shots of the umbrella-clad family scurrying in the rain. Kudos to Spanish DP Anna Franquesa Solano for her brilliant cinematography and composer Alex Weston for the absolutely gorgeous music that adds so much to the mood. The music is a perfect mix of heartbreak and that feeling of ‘dissonant’ that also has a vibrant, lively vibe.

I’m thrilled that in the past couple of years there are more and more films that tell the Asian-American story… Crazy Rich Asians might’ve opened a door for such storytelling, and since then I’ve seen Go Back To China, Always Be My Maybe, that are all highly-recommended. Hopefully we see even more diverse voices in cinema as there are SO many tales worth telling from parts of the world that don’t get explored often in Hollywood.

I sure hope the Academy won’t overlook this next year, especially for Wang and Awkwafina. Lastly, I want to implore you to see this film in the cinema. Trust me, all the hype is justified and it still holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 107 reviews. Be sure to pack tissues when you go see it, it’ll make you laugh and cry in equal measure in this joyful, poignant celebration of family.


Have you seen The Farewell? I’d love to hear what you think!

Advanced Screening Giveaway to Lulu Wang’s THE FAREWELL

One of my most anticipated movies this Summer isn’t a blockbuster, but it’s this indie drama from writer/director Lulu Wang that was a major hit at Sundance. I was tearing up already just watching the trailer, I know I’ll pack tissues when I go to the screening. The film features Awkwafina in her first leading role. Apparently it’s based on Wang’s own poignant story about a family that, upon finding out their beloved matriarch is dying of cancer, gathers for a ‘wedding’ in China so they could all spend time with her before she dies.

Thanks to Allied Global Marketing, you’re invited to see THE FAREWELL early before it opens in Minneapolis next weekend.

The Farewell ADVANCED SCREENING

Monday, July 15 at 7:30pm at
Alamo Drafthouse Woodbury (@alamotwincities)

RSVP using the link below for your chance to attend with a guest.
RSVPs will be granted on a first come, first serve basis.

rsvp here

THE FAREWELL hits select Minneapolis theaters on Friday, July 19.
It’s rated PG.

With THE FAREWELL, writer/director Lulu Wang has created a heartfelt celebration of both the way we perform family and the way we live it, masterfully interweaving a  gently humorous depiction of the good lie in action with a richly moving story of how family can unite and strengthen us, often in spite of ourselves.

Check out the trailer if you haven’t already:


Are you excited to see The Farewell? If you have seen it, what did you think?

Netflix Pick: Always Be My Maybe (2019)

I can’t remember when was the last time I was SO excited for a Netflix Original movie! But when the first trailer came across me a couple of months ago, I was immediately hooked on Always Be My Maybe.

Ok, the title alone, is a clever rift of Mariah Carey’s hit song Always Be My Baby. If you pay attention to the lyrics, well you could say it’s a bit of a spoiler for this movie. I for one love stories about romantic reunion (a la Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which highly influenced my own film Hearts Want) where the two leads who have a past reunite and sparks still fly between them. I love the way director Nahnatchka Khan sets up the story of Vietnamese-American Sasha Tran (Miya Cech) and Korean-American Marcus Kim (Emerson Min) from the time they were in grade school growing up as neighbors in San Francisco. While Sasha’s parents always leave her alone at home to work on their store, Marcus’ loving parents are often home that Sasha’s got a taste of her cooking skills from Marcus’ own mom. As they become teens, the two ended up hooking up (it’s no spoiler as it’s right there on the trailer) that ended up straining their relationship.

Fast forward 15 years later. Sasha (now played by Ali Wong) is now a famous celebrity chef living in L.A. who’s dating a hotshot, hunky manager (Daniel Dae Kim), while Marcus (Randall Park) still remains at home, working with his dad as an A/C repairman while playing in the same hometown band, Hello Peril. The stark contrast between their career and life trajectory is played on perfectly here, and a great source for jokes between the two. Wong and Park are so perfectly-cast and have such an amazing chemistry together, the most potent recipe for any good rom-com. The first time they see each other as adults is absolutely hilarious and perfectly captures how different their lives have become, yet some things remain the same.

Co-written by Wong, Park and Michael Golamco, the script is a refreshing delight in that it shows a believable world the Asian-American characters inhabit, without resorting to stereotypes. It’s also not just a generic Asian-American community, but two distinct communities of Vietnamese and Korean descents. Both Sasha and Marcus feel like real people, but yet not the typical Asian characters you see in Hollywood movies. One perfect example is Marcus’ loving and free-spirited dad Harry (James Saito) who’s as far away from the typical strict, business-minded, demanding Asian fathers as you can get. Harry is just one of the many memorable supporting characters here – I also love Sasha’s sarcastic best friend Veronica (Michelle Buteau) and Marcus’ exuberant girlfriend Jenny (Vivian Bang). But of course, one cannot review this movie without mentioning Keanu Reeves as Sasha’s new boyfriend who sure knows how to make an entrance!

Apparently Reeves is a fan of Wong’s stand-up shows and was happy to be a part of her and Park’s love story (as he was quoted). Fresh out of John Wick 3, Reeves actually filmed his scenes in between shoots for that action movie! Clearly he relished in the role of playing a version of himself, the ultra-famous Hollywood celebrity who can fork in $6k for dinner and wears expensive glasses without any lens in them, ha! The scene of their double date is a hoot and would definitely count as a rom-com classic, it even inspires a hilarious song featuring Reeves that plays at the end of the movie. As fun as Reeves’ role here, the stars of the movie are still Wong and Park, which is a testament to how well-written their characters are. If I had to nitpick however, is the Notting Hill-inspired finale. I feel that it’s perhaps deliberate and while the actors still made the scene their own, I wish they’d come up with something more original.

I hope one day that a Hollywood movie with all-Asian-American cast would no longer be considered a novelty. The success of Crazy Rich Asians opened the door (ok maybe a window) for movies like this one, which I hope will continue. Whilst CRA is perhaps more fantastical in nature, showing the top tiers of the 1% club, Always Be My Maybe is much more grounded. Now, just because the movie is important in terms of representation, it still has to be judged on its merit. I can say confidently that Always Be My Maybe is a great movie, period. It’s got everything one would want in a rom-com, plus SO much more!

The locations in the Bay Area is almost a character in itself and food naturally plays a major part in the movie, as they do in the characters’ lives. I have to mention that the production quality is top notch. From Sasha’s swanky restaurants, the ultra-posh (or should I say preposterous) restaurant where they meet Keanu are beautifully-designed, not to mention Sasha’s beautiful dresses. Oh, and those fabulous glasses! Between her chic specs and Keanu’s lens-free, dark-rimmed glasses, this movie is basically spectacles-porn!

But the secret weapon of the movie is the definitely the charming leads — Ali Wong and Randall Park are now one my of my all-time favorite rom-com couples! I’ve actually never seen any of Wong’s comedy specials, but I’ve been a fan of Park as a character actor in various movies. SO glad that they both have a chance to shine here in leading roles. You know the term ‘Asian Don’t Raisin,’ well it definitely applies to Park and Wong who are 45 and 37 respectively, yet they could believably pass as college students!

I absolutely adore this movie and I’m glad it’s on Netflix so I can watch it again and again. The zippy script fires humorous lines on all cylinders, but still packs an emotional punch. This is another great collaboration between Nahnatchka Khan and the stars Wong and Park, who worked together in the ABC series Fresh Off The Boat. I sure hope they’d all work together again in the future. Heck, I’d love to see a sequel to Always Be My Maybe, I think there’s plenty of places where the story could be expanded.


Have you seen ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE? I’d love to hear what you think!