By Bianca Garner
“Go Back to China” is the latest film from director and writer, Emily Ting. It’s a funny little film starring YouTube star Anna Akana, who plays spoiled rich girl Sasha, who is cut off from her trust fund. In order to get money from her distant father, Teddy (played by Richard Ng), she must agree to go back home, to China, and work in the family’s toy factory. As you can imagine, it doesn’t go exactly well. Slowly, Sasha learns to embrace her family heritage and bond with her family. What makes this film so unique is that it’s based on Emily’s own experiences. Editor, Bianca Garner, caught up with Emily to discuss the process of bringing Emily’s story to the big-screen.
Bianca: Hi Emily, would you mind introducing yourself for our readers, and telling us about your wonderful film “Go Back to China”. I fully enjoyed your film, it’s such a fun watch and it deals with some great themes such as ‘coming of age’, ‘looking into your family heritage’ and ‘knowing your own identity.’ I know that this film emerged from your own experiences, is that correct?
Emily: “Go Back to China” is largely semi-autobiographical. For people who don’t know, “Go Back to China” is the story of a spoiled rich girl called Sasha Li who after blowing through half of her trust fund is cut off by her father and forced to go back to China and work for the family business. So, I say it’s semi-autobiographical in the sense that the character of Sasha is a much more exaggerated version of myself at the age of 24. I wasn’t nearly as awful or as difficult as she was.
However, her experience of going back to China was largely based on my own experience, in that when I was 24 I actually went back to China to work for my family’s business but I wasn’t cut off. The first act of the film was made up for dramatic effect, the real reason I went home was a lot more nuanced and I ended up staying and working for the family business for over ten years, much like the older sister character, Carol. Everything in terms of Sasha’s coming-of-age journey very much mirrored my own.
That’s the history and the background of the project, it’s a story that is very near and dear to my heart. I feel like a lot of people, whether you’re an artist or a writer, or anyone really; has that one story that defines the trajectory of their life and shapes the person that they have become today . For me, this story is it.
It’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell for a very long time, I’ve lived with it for over a decade, and I’ve struggled over a decade on figuring out how to tell this story. I knew I wanted to tell it, but I didn’t know how. I mean, how do you compress 12 years into a film? Then one day it just came to me to wrap it around this ‘fish-out of-water’ spoiled millennial going back to China for the first time.
My story happened over a decade ago, we’re bringing this story into our contemporary world, a post Donald Trump world, hence the title “Go Back to China”. All of this has been a story that has been with me for a long time, but I only figured out how to tell it recently. I had finally cracked the story and I wanted to get it out as soon as possible.
“It’s a story that is very near and dear to my heart. I feel like a lot of people, whether you’re an artist or a writer, or anyone really; has that one story that defines the trajectory of their life.”
Bianca: It was an interesting decision to tell this story as a comedy. Comedy is one of those genres that is notoriously difficult to direct, write and act. What made you go for that decision and was writing and directing a comedy as difficult as people claim it to be?
Emily: You know, it’s funny as when I first set out to make this film this was to be my Sundance drama. This is my second feature, my first film was “Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong” which was a rom-com and also had a very light touch. You can’t really change who you are as a filmmaker and as an artist, I just naturally gravitate towards a lighter touch. The film does take a more dramatic turn towards the third act, but throughout it there’s a lightness and levity to it that a lot of people pick up on.
I didn’t set out to make a “comedy” and I would call this more of a “dramedy” but once it came out, people were commenting how funny it was, which is great that people feel that way. I wanted to make a drama with very light moments, and it regards the film’s comedy, a lot of that is down to the credit of Anna Akana as she comes from a comedic background. Even Richard Ng, who plays Sasha’s father Teddy, is a big comedic actor in Hong Kong. Those two comedians brought a lot of humour to their roles.
Teddy, written on the page, could be that mean, stern Asian Dad but Richard brought a lot of humanity and layers to that character. Sasha was written as being very spoiled, and bratty which Anna played very well but she still found another nuance for the character in order to balance her out.
Bianca: Everybody is so wonderfully cast in the film, how did you find the right person for the main roles? And, were there any roles that were particularly difficult to cast?
Emily: The first role I went to cast was the character of Sasha. After I had first finished the script I had no idea who would be Sasha, you hear of other people saying they knew who they had in mind for such and such role when they were writing their scripts, but I didn’t really know who Sasha was going to be.
Around the same time, I was doing a lot of general meetings with digital companies and at every single one of them, Anna Akana’s name kept coming up because she’s this big Asian YouTuber. People kept saying that we should both work together sometime. I took their advice, I went on YouTube and fell down a rabbit hole of watching all of her videos. I immediately fell in love with her.
She’s so likeable, watchable and has this spark and energy to her, that to me perfectly captured who Sasha was in my head. Anna hasn’t done a lot of traditional media acting outside of YouTube, but I watched whatever I could get my hands on and I was very impressed with her body of work, her personality and her energy.
I made a straight offer to her against the advice of many other people. I think there’s still this prejudice now that YouTubers can’t act, but I felt confident in my decision as I had seen enough of Anna’s work to know she could carry this movie. It was a little of a leap of faith on my part.
“Anna Akana’s name kept coming up because she’s this big Asian YouTuber. People kept saying that we should both work together sometime. I took their advice, I went on YouTube and fell down a rabbit hole of watching all of her videos.”
Next to come on board was Lynn Chen who plays Carol. Lynn has done a lot of Independent Asian-American films, she comes from a totally different world from Anna. She’s a classically trained actress, starring in films like “Saving Face”. She came on board very easily, I sent her the script via our mutual friend Dave Boyle on Thursday and then by Monday, she had replied “I’m in.”.
The most difficult role to cast was the father, Teddy. I was joking through the casting process that this was so typical of a film about an absentee father that we really can’t find the right father. From the get go, I wanted to cast an Asian actor not an Asian-American actor who spoke and acted very much like an American or an American immigrant. Teddy is not an American immigrant, he’s Asian through and through. He can speak English very well as he runs a multinational corporation as he needs to speak to customers but he’s not an American. So, I really wanted an Asian actor.
We sent out offers to major Asian actors, but over there they work all the time and they make up the majority of actors there. So, when a juicy role like this one comes up it didn’t really entice them like it would an Asian-American actor who would cut their rate just to have a lead role in an Indie film because roles are so scarce in America.
“From the get go, I wanted to cast an Asian actor not an Asian-American actor who spoke and acted very much like an American or an American immigrant. Teddy is not an American immigrant, he’s Asian through and through.”
The casting process kept stalling because the script would go to one actor and they would sit on it for like two months, then pass. It was a really prolonged process. We finally decided on Richard as I have a relationship with him as he had a small cameo role in my first movie. The reason we got him for that role is that his daughter is friends with our producer who produced both of my movies in Hong Kong. Richard is someone who is named veteran in Hong Kong, he’s been in over 200 movies. He’s constantly getting mobbed on the streets for selfies!
At first we feared that he was going to be a little too old for the role. He’s in his late Seventies, and Teddy is meant to be in his late Sixties. We decided that we had makeup and wardrobe that could age someone down and we didn’t want that to be the reason we didn’t go with Richard. I reached out to him, sent him the script and he responded straight away. He came on board, and wanted to work on the character more, so Teddy was more nuanced and didn’t come across as a one-note mean Asian Dad. We dyed his hair, gave him a new wardrobe and he was transformed into Teddy.
Bianca: What about the smaller roles, such as Kendy Cheung who plays Teddy’s Girlfriend, Lulu and the workers in the factory? How did you find them?
Emily: Everyone aside from Anna, Lynn and Richard, we found via auditions. We found Kendy, in an audition, she was Miss Hong Kong a few years ago. I also peppered throughout the film a lot of real life counterparts to the roles they play, for example, the little boy who plays Christian, Carol’s and Sasha’s half brother, is my actual little brother in real life. He basically just plays a version of himself because he plays his video games all day.
The factory manager, manager Wong, is the actual manager of my family’s toy factory. We shot in all real locations as well, so the factory you see, is my actual family’s toy factory. And, Teddy’s house is my Dad’s actual house, so that tells you something about my Dad’s personality! All the actors you see working in the factory are actual workers from our factory too. They had never been in a film before, so we brought them in and paid them a day rate to stand there and pretend to make toys.
Overall, it was a combination of trained, professional actors and people from non-professional acting backgrounds.
Bianca: I love the fact that you filmed in the actual toy factory, that’s some serious method directing there!
Emily: For me that was another draw of this project, I didn’t want to go on a sound stage and build the factory, I wanted to shoot in our actual factory. It made sense for a number of reasons, firstly it was free and I have access to it.
Secondly, it was a little bit of a time capsule because we don’t know for how long the factory will stay in business and China is rapidly changing. Little factory towns like ours are being brought out by the government, to tear down the old factories and build new high rises, luxury developments and shopping malls. I feel very thankful that I was able to capture the factory on film and share it with the world.
Bianca: I love the touching father and daughter dynamic being explored in your film. What has been your own father’s response to the film?
Emily: The film premiered at South By Southwest last year (2019), and throughout our festival cricut people kept coming up to me asking whether my Dad had seen the film. He hadn’t yet, we were waiting for a festival invitation in Hong Kong so he could see it. We finally premiered at the Women’s Film Festival in Hong Kong that takes place in August, and that was the first time he saw it.
I didn’t get to attend the festival, the film had finished about 8 or 9pm over there, and it was the middle of the night here (in Los Angeles), and I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up all night waiting to hear about all the different reactions (not just my father’s, but my other family members, and people from the factory).
“We shot in all real locations as well, so the factory you see, is my actual family’s toy factory. And, Teddy’s house is my Dad’s actual house, so that tells you something about my Dad’s personality!”
At 4am, a flurry of messages came in from friends, family and colleagues all saying how much they love the movie. I kept going through the messages looking for what my Dad thought. There was only one person’s reaction I really cared about and that was his. Finally at 5am, a whole hour after the film had finished, I got a text message from him: it was just five thumbs up emojis. And, I was like ‘phew!’.
As, you can see from the movie, communication between us is a big issue. There’s so many things I wanted to say to my father but I couldn’t, so I wrote a movie about it. He watched the movie, understood where I was coming from and he accepted that. He needed time to process it all, but he sent those emojis and said he thought I had done a good job and he was proud of me. And, that’s all I needed to hear.
Something else really sweet happened at the Q&A session at the Hong Kong Film Festival, my little brother got to go up on stage with the rest of the cast, and someone asked “what was something you wanted to tell your Dad after seeing this movie?” and he stood up in front of this whole audience with a microphone, (and he’s twelve years old by the way) and said, “What I want to tell my Dad, is to stop having so many wives and spend more time with his children.”
“There’s so many things I wanted to say to my father but I couldn’t, so I wrote a movie about it.”
I cried watching that video, because for me, my little brother just got it, and my Dad is there nodding saying “yes, Son. I will do better.” It was very touching that moment happened and someone caught it on camera. It was a big cathartic experience for our entire family.
You can find further information about the film including where to stream or rent “Go Back to China” here.