Premiering at this year’s SXSW, Go Back to China hopes to piggyback off the success of Crazy Rich Asians, telling an Asian-focused story about the deep importance of supporting one’s family. Directed by Emily Ting (Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong), Go Back to China features YouTube star Anna Akana—in her first leading role—as Sasha Li, an entitled party girl whose lavish lifestyle is cut short after her wealthy father (Richard Ng) cuts her off financially. Her father then forces her to move back to China to work for the family toy business, reuniting her with her estranged half-sister Carol (Lynn Chen). Sasha’s all-new world of responsibility and familial instability proves simultaneously frustrating and fulfilling, eventually pushing her family to overcome the various roadblocks that hinder their love for each other.
Go Back to China hits all the marks of a strong, family-focused comedy-drama. It brings laughs with clever jokes and situational humor, but also presents emotional depth and complexity, pushing viewers to think about their own dysfunctional families and relationships. Above the comedy and drama, Go Back to China’s unique story should resonate in many Asian and Asian-American households. Of course, anyone could find the Li family relatable, but Ting’s second directorial outing continues to push the importance of diversity and representation in film by reminding mainstream audiences that familial experiences are all but ubiquitous.
For director Ting and co-star Chen, Go Back to China tells a deeply personal story that’s diverse by nature. Ting’s film is almost autobiographical, as Sasha depicts a younger version of herself and Carol an older version. Carol’s character features a fundamentally Chinese value of responsibility which Chen says is not often seen in mainstream movies.
“I think everyone who has a family from another country can relate to the whole immigrant story and the feeling that you’re tied between two cultures and the feeling that you have this duty to your family,” Chen said. “Especially being Chinese, I could relate to Carol’s unspoken responsibility to, ‘I have to do this.’”
This unspoken responsibility is the crux of the film. In many Asian families, parents are often focused on preparing their children for success in the real world. This means ensuring they succeed academically and providing for their needs financially, but it seldom means providing for their emotional needs. That’s not to say Asian parents don’t care for their children, as many Asian parents often wish their kids succeed beyond them in life, and that wish can sometimes come at the expense of the children’s emotional health. For Ting, she wanted to use this uniquely Asian family dynamic to not only represent unique upbringings but to also tell a message about true responsibility.
“I think there’s this Asian mentality of [supporting your family financially] instead of [emotionally] supporting of their kids,” Ting said. “That’s what’s different between an Asian family and a typical American family. That’s the message I wanted to come across. Having a relationship with your family [and] being supportive of your family is more important than supporting your family financially.”
Similarly, Chen believes this reflection can push other Asian families to reorganize familial priorities. She believes it starts with better representation.
“It’s such a powerful message for people to take from this film,” Chen said. “I think it’s something we know innately, but we need permission in order to actually think that’s okay. Otherwise, I think embedded in our heads by our family and from society is this number one priority to take care of your family. You’re just kind of left with that and you don’t know what that means… I think we’re yearning for that. We do need examples of other families that look like us on screen, representing us, and showing that it’s possible.”
Since Ting’s film was in development before Crazy Rich Asians came out, its fully Asian focus made it difficult for her to pitch and sell the film. After trying to sell it to major production companies, Ting eventually settled on financing the film independently and trying to get it into major film festivals like South By. However difficult it was to make the film, since familial experiences are so diverse, she believes audiences are yearning for more films that represent cultures seldom seen on the big screen.
“I feel like the audience has always been receptive… If you have a very universal story about family, about love, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is,” Ting said. “It’s the gatekeepers [film producers or executives] who’ve always been like, ‘It’s a hard sell. We can’t sell movie tickets to movies not about the majority…’ The audience has always been there, it’s just changing the minds of the Hollywood gatekeepers.”