'Go Back to China': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of Unbound Feet Productions
A sweet story can’t overcome the clumsy dialogue.

Anna Akana is an L.A. fashionista forced to work in a Chinese toy factory in Emily Ting’s semi-autobiographical comedy.

How does a young Los Angeles fashion-school graduate, who thinks nothing of running up a $2,000 tab for champagne at a club, end up working in a Chinese stuffed-animal factory? In writer-director Emily Ting’s fanciful comedy, Sasha Li (YouTube star Anna Akana) gets her trust fund cut off by her father, who left Sasha and her mother to head back to China long ago. If she wants a penny more, he insists that she go to Shenzhen to work in the family business, evidently to teach her a lesson. Unfortunately, that lesson is all too easy to see coming in a film that offers more clunky, earnest moments than fun. As Sasha morphs from club kid to conscience-driven businesswoman, Go Back to China is easy to watch, and at times even easier to roll your eyes at.

Ting has loosely based the story on her own 12-year experience working for her family’s toy factory in China. Enhancing it for comic effect, she turns Sasha, the spoiled rich girl, and her stubborn father, with uncompromising expectations about family, into cardboard characters.   

In China, where she hasn’t lived since she was a baby, Sasha deals with culture shock. No Google?!  But she adapts in no time and is soon redesigning toys to make them less staid — her big idea is to offer pastel-colored stuffed bears for Christmas instead of for Easter — and making sure the company cafeteria offers fresh fruit.

Go Back to China is the second feature Ting has directed, after Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (2016). She has more experience as a producer, which shows onscreen. Shot in Los Angeles, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the film looks fantastic. Josh Silfen’s cinematography is brightly colored and sharp, and the costumes by Jason Pang and Jennifer Newman are eye-catching, from the assembly line workers’ caps to the pink feathered jacket Sasha wears as she sashays into her first day of work.

But the didactic screenplay sinks the film. Instead of exploring characters, or having them spout witty lines, Ting has them explain everything to each other, out loud, almost all the time. Sasha and her older half-sister, Carol (Lynn Chen), are especially fond of lecturing their father about business, his serial monogamy and his neglect of his various families. “What about your duty to actually spend time with your kids?” Sasha asks, in a typical bit of dialogue.

With words like that, no wonder Akana struggles to make Sasha seem natural. Kelly Hu (Arrow) is more convincing as Sasha’s mother, but her role is tiny, mostly seen on the phone in L.A. The father, played with endearing sincerity by veteran actor Richard Ng, is an intriguing figure who deserved more attention. Although he had married and divorced several times, he insists that Sasha and Carol have a duty to take over the family business. Is that about tradition? Power and money? It’s the one thing we might have wanted explained that isn’t. A misjudgment by Sasha at the factory sends the characters into a third-act crisis, but no attempt at plot twists can overcome the flat way the script articulates its themes of family, responsibility and clashes of culture and generations.

Ting makes passing references to substantial cultural issues. In Los Angeles, a woman Sasha accidentally bumps into on the street snaps, "Why don’t you just go back to China?" In China, because Google is blocked, the factory’s designers have no way to compare their toys with others in the world. There’s no need for Ting to explore those issues. But it’s disheartening that the Google problem leads to a cliched episode, a montage scene in which Sasha takes the designers on a window-shopping tour in Hong Kong. 

It’s great to see more films with Asian and Asian-American actors and stories, especially one written and directed by a woman. But while Ting’s movie may be heartfelt, it offers viewers more fluff than heart.

Production company: Unbound Feet Productions
Cast: Anna Akana, Richard Ng, Lynn Chen, Kendy Cheung, Kelly Hu
Director-screenwriter: Emily Ting
Producers: Emily Ting, Sophia Shek, Frederick Thornton
Director of photography: Josh Silfen
Production designer: Adri Siriwatt
Costume designers: Jason Pang, Jennifer Newman
Editor: Anthony Rosc
Music: Timo Chen
Casting: Amy Lippens, Mike Leeder
Venue: SXSW (Narrative Feature Competition)
Sales: Cinetic Media

95 minutes