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

Spotlight on indie drama A Year & Change + interview with director Stephen Suettinger

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I always love stories of redemption and I think a smaller film can often tell such stories in a more sincere, heartfelt way. A Year and Change is a slice-of-life film of a divorcee named Owen who after a failed marriage is a bit lost and drifting aimlessly through life. After falling off the roof at a New Year’s Eve house party, Owen decides that it’s time to make some wholesale changes in his life. In the course of one year, he tries to regain control of his life and in the process he finds new love again. Romance is a big part of the film but it’s not everything this film is about, it’s more about a man’s journey of overcoming the hurdles in his life that keeps him from making the most of his life.

I’ve never seen any film of Bryan Greenberg before and suddenly I saw two of his films where he played the lead. He’s definitely got the gentle charisma as a leading man, but I love the authentic way he portrays the role of Owen. A lot of actors might have the charisma, but not necessarily the sincere vulnerability that make a certain character sympathetic and relatable. The bittersweet romantic drama is a solid directorial debut from Stephen Suettinger. I like how he tells Owen’s story in an understated way and nary of grating over-sentimentality.  The film also deals with dark subjects but without resorting to being overly gloom and doom.

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The film has a terrific supporting cast: Claire Van Der Boom, T.R. Knight, Jamie Chung, Jamie Hector and Marshall Allman. Interesting that he’s shared some scenes with Jamie again whom he co-starred in It’s Another Tomorrow in Hong Kong. The script is engaging and the pacing is just right, plus it’s got a pretty cool soundtrack that fits the tone and mood of the story.

I’m glad to hear that the public will be able to see this soon! Vision Films will release the film across North America on DVD and VOD this Thanksgiving November 24th 2015.

Check out the trailer:

 


TCFF Screening Time(s): 
10/27/2015 (8:15 PM)


I had the privilege of chatting with director Stephen Suettinger about making the film, so thanks so much Steve for the wonderful and entertaining insights!

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Q. How did you come to collaborate with Emily Ting? Did you work together before this project?

A couple of years ago, Emily produced one of Jim Beggarly’s scripts called ‘The Kitchen’ which also happened to star Bryan Greenberg. So when Bryan attached to AYAC, I went straight to Emily to see if she’d be interested in coming on board to produce. Thankfully she joined the project or else we may never have gotten the movie made!

Q. I’m always interested in films about second chances in life or starting over, how did you and/or Jim Beggarly come up with the story? I think this is the first time I come across a film with a vending machine owner as the protagonist.

Jim sent me the original script back in 2006. Yes, it took 9 years (!) to finally get it to the screen. To put that in perspective, I’ve had 4 kids since I first read the original draft of Jim’s script which used to be called ‘Dear Jen.’ After reading it back then, I fell in love with the characters. They reminded me of people I knew growing up in Maryland (Jim also grew up here). I was a big fan of Owen being a vending machine owner because there’s this natural paradox of him being in a position to help people (even if just to satisfy their hunger) and yet it’s this very solitary kind of job. He’s often alone, even within a crowd of people.

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Bryan with T.R. Knight

I knew I loved the characters, but I didn’t find my way ‘in’ to the story until after my Mom passed away in 2011. They say that when a parent dies, you take one step into the grave with them. Luckily I have a supportive family that made sure that I didn’t spiral into depression. AYAC’s lead character Owen, I realized, didn’t have that kind of support system. So after the many tragedies that he’s lived through (the loss of his parents, the dissolution of his marriage), he’s just kind of ‘stuck’. It became clear to me that AYAC should be a story about Owen surrounding himself with a surrogate family. So that’s the direction that we ultimately took with the story.

Q. You’ve worked as an AD as well as in Special Effects (for Avatar, wow!!), how did you get into the film industry?

My first job in the industry was as an Editor’s PA on the movie ‘Contact.’ I helped set up the editing bays and a screening room in Washington DC when the crew came here to shoot on location. One of the perks of the job was that I got to watch dailies with the director (Robert Zemeckis), the actors, the DP, the editors, and the Producers. It was my first time ‘seeing behind the curtain’ of a movie, and I was instantly hooked. From there I worked as a PA on a bunch of movies that came through the DC/Baltimore area before working as a Production Coordinator for the Discovery Channel.

I directed my first short called ‘Writing Wrongs’ and it was a great experience – but I learned quickly that I didn’t know some of the basic fundamentals of filmmaking. So I went back to grad school at USC’s School of the Cinematic Arts and tried to learn a bit about every discipline involved in the craft of filmmaking. Upon graduating, I reached out to my friends from ‘Contact’ and got a job on Robert Zemeckis’s new motion capture movie ‘Beowulf.’ My job was basically to take Bob Z’s notes and to help out the script supervisor. From there, I moved onto ‘Avatar’ where I was taking James Cameron’s notes and was also on the 3D implementation team for a couple of years. But my dream was always to direct this little script that a playwright from NYC had sent me in 2006 – and after 3 weeks of shooting in December 2013, we finally got it in the can. And now here we are.

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Q. How did you come to cast Bryan Greenberg? Would you share about the casting process?

At the premiere of ‘The Kitchen,’ my understanding is that Bryan asked Jim what else he was working on. Jim called me and asked if he could give the script to Bryan. I’ve long been a fan of Bryan’s work so of course I said “please do!” Bryan read it on the plane back to LA, and loved it. I flew out to meet with him shortly after that and we hit it off. He happened to be friends with some of the people I had in mind for the other roles, so it worked out perfectly. Bryan is such a wonderful guy that people really wanted to work with him, so once he came on board, casting moved forward quickly.

Q. You shot your film on location in Montgomery County, MD, which was your hometown. I saw that you shot it during Autumn, my favorite season. What’s been the best moments as well as challenges of making your first feature?

It’s hard to shoot a movie that takes place over an entire year on a very limited budget and a three week production schedule. In order to make Maryland look like any season (but pre-dominantly Fall/Winter since the bulk of the movie takes place in these months), we knew that we’d either have to shoot in December or March. To be honest, we got incredibly lucky with the weather. There’s a saying in Maryland that if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes. There were days when it snowed 6+ inches, which was perfect for the winter scenes, and there were days where it was 60 degrees outside which was perfect for the Spring/Summer scenes. Incredibly, the weather cooperated with us for the most part. Of course there were several occasions where I had to re-write a scene to take place indoors when it was supposed to be an exterior scene, on the night before shooting it – but that happens all the time with low budget independent film-making.

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We went to great lengths to shoot during the hiatuses of the big shows that film in Maryland (House of Cards and Veep) so that we could hire some of their crewmembers. We’re very fortunate to have experienced industry professionals as well as vendors (rental houses, post facilities, sound facilities, etc) in the area who are always willing to lend a hand to local filmmakers.

Since I knew we’d be shooting in Maryland, I tailored the script to take place in some of the locations that I knew and loved. But that can be both a blessing and a curse. One of the biggest lessons I learned along the way is that I should try very hard not to shoot in my own house (displacing my family of 5 – including 3 young kids at the time), my in-law’s house, my father’s house, my sister’s house, etc… They were very supportive and we wouldn’t have been able to make the movie without their generosity, but filming in your loved one’s houses brings a whole other set of worries to the table.

Autumn is my favorite season too! It was one of the things I missed most about the East coast while living in LA.


Thanks again Emily and Stephen for chatting w/ me yesterday!

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What are your thoughts of A Year and Change? 

Spotlight on ‘It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong’ + interview with director Emily Ting

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It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

Synopsis: Ruby and Josh spent an unforgettable night together in Hong Kong a year ago, and now their brief encounter is about to get a second chance. As effervescent as a perfect first date, this charming walk and talk romance takes full advantage of the chemistry of its leads, the playfulness of their exchanges, and the magical landscape that is Hong Kong at night.



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There is something about real-time romance drama that I find intriguing. Perhaps because it automatically made me think of the Before Sunrise trilogy. Now, this film is set over the course of two nights, but for the most part it takes place a year after the first night they met.

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Ruby is a Chinese American toy designer from LA who visits Hong Kong for the first time on business. I think that’s so cool to see an unusual profession for the female lead, and the more I spend time with her, the more I like Ruby. As she was stranded trying to get to her friends’ party, she runs into Josh, an American expat who ends up escorting her to her destination. The more time they spend talking through the vibrant and colorful street of Hong Kong in the nighttime, they find themselves being more drawn to each other.

I feel that perhaps there was an instant attraction the moment they met, but it’s obvious there’s a connection. Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg are a couple in real life, so perhaps that helps make Ruby and Josh’s connection so palbable. There’s an effortless chemistry between the two, even though all they do is talk and having drinks in public. I’m familiar w/ Jamie but this is definitely her strongest performance I’ve seen from her. On the other hand, this is the first time I saw Bryan in a film and I definitely want to see more of his work.

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The second time they find each other again, a year has passed and there have been changes in their lives. Ruby’s got a promotion and is now in a relationship. Josh has left his job in finance and now pursuing his dream to be a novelist, something Ruby suggested in their initial meeting. I LOVE great dialog in movies, and It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is full of them! I find myself nodding as I witness their conversation, and think about them long after the film’s done. Ruby asked Josh the difference between being an expat and an immigrant, for example, why he is considered an expat living in Hong Kong, whilst her Chinese parents making a new life in the United States is considered an immigrant. I also like how the film plays with stereotypes, as Josh can speak Chinese whilst Ruby can’t as she grew up in California, that sort of thing.

Emily Ting‘s done a lot of short films prior to her feature debut and I must say I’m impressed in the way she crafted the story. Everything flows nicely and in a natural way, the actors seem comfortable and fit the roles perfectly. But the strength of the film is in the dialog, which comes to life as the night wears on. The combination of the undeniable chemistry of the leads, set against the backdrop of the glittering lights of the city is rather intoxicating. I never thought of Hong Kong as romantic, but it certainly feels that way here.

The ending might frustrate some as it doesn’t tie things nicely in a big, red bow. But that’s the idea. The filmmaker is set on asking the question, ‘What happens when you meet the right person at the wrong time?’ Well, that question will certainly linger with you long after the end credits roll.

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Interview with Emily Ting

Q: Before I jump into the questions specifically about Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, I have some general questions about you as a filmmaker. There’s been much [welcomed] discussion about the blatant gender inequality in Hollywood, even FBI is now involved with an investigation into gender discrimination. What has been your experience as a female filmmaker, do you encounter much hardship in getting your projects into fruition?

I actually think this is a great time to be a female filmmaker right now, only because there is so much welcomed discussion about the issue.  But I do hope that someday being a female filmmaker would just be the norm and not the exception to the rule. As for my own projects, because they’re all independently financed and many of them self financed, being a woman didn’t really factor much into the equation. But it would be interesting to see what kind of opportunities I may get going forward. And that is why it’s important to support indie films because they provide a platform to voices that are often underrepresented in Hollywood. 

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Filming w/ Bryan and Jamie

You’ve done several short films before this one, what made you decide to make the jump into feature film?

I think that most filmmakers dream of making a feature at some point in their career. But I do think that it’s important to learn the process and hone your skills on shorts before you jump into your first feature. Even with several shorts under my belt, I still felt extremely nervous tackling my first feature!

How’s the experience been in directing your first feature? Please tell me what your biggest challenge or most memorable moment making this film.

Making my first feature was both extremely satisfying and incredibly terrifying. And making that first feature in a foreign country only made it that much more challenging – from working with mostly a foreign crew to shooting most of the film in an uncontrolled environment. I think the biggest challenge for me was to overcome the hurdle of my own insecurities as a first time director. The majority of my set crew had more experience with their respective jobs than I did, which was a daunting but exciting feeling.  Sometimes, I would let that knowledge get inside my head, but I also learned to let go and really listen and trust my crew and cast. It gradually became a very collaborative process.

I love the premise of this film, where did you come up w/ the idea? Is it something personal to you or something that came about through someone you know?

I had lived in Hong Kong for 5 years as an expat prior to moving back to the US. As much as I found the city exciting and gorgeous, I never quite felt at home there. I found it quite hard to connect to people for some reason.  I’ve always wanted to make a film about two people connecting in this occasionally alienating city and build a love story around that. The idea sat with me for a long time until one night, I actually met a fellow expat, and we spent a night wandering around the city and talking together. I thought we were building a connection, but then, I found out later that he had a girlfriend. I felt like a fool for making this flirtation up in my head. So, I went home and wrote the screenplay that eventually became the film.

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Shooting on the Mid Levels Escalators

Sounds like you shot the film on location in Hong Kong. I read that The Avenue of Stars is currently closed for revitalization, so that must be a relief you’ve captured it on your film. Tell us about the filming process, how long it took, the challenges, etc.

Yes, the Ave of the Stars is a major location in our film and I can’t believe that it’s being closed down for so long! And I am so happy that we were able to capture it on film for the time being. If we had gone into production now, we would’ve lost the most beautiful location in our film. Shooting in Hong Kong definitely came with a unique set of challenges. We shot at the start of Monsoon season and it would rain every single day. But some how we got really lucky and it would always stop raining when we would roll cameras. It was really easy and cheap to get permits, but we didn’t have the budget to close down any streets so my two actors were constantly just acting amongst the real crowds of Hong Kong.

The film is designed to have these really long walk and talk sequences that’s meant to all be done in a single take, but they were often ruined by people on the street waving to the cameras. And sometimes people were downright hostile, yelling at us to get off the street. We would either go and appease them or change location on the spot. But all those challenges were worth it because we now have a beautiful looking film set in the gorgeous city of Hong Kong, which totally sets us apart from so many other films out there. 

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Lastly, how did the casting process go? Did Bryan Greenberg and/or Jamie Chung audition for the roles?

I got really lucky with the casting of my first film. I’ve always wanted Jamie for the role of Ruby. And I had a relationship with Bryan already, having produced two films with him. At the LA premiere of one of the films, I was telling him about this script I had written, and he mentioned that his girlfriend would be perfect for the role. And it turns out that he was dating Jamie at the time! Talk about serendipity! I sent the script to him and two weeks later, they signed on. Casting your first film really doesn’t get much easier than this!


Thanks for the interview Emily, it was lovely meeting you at TCFF!

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Thoughts about the interview and/or the film?