Go Back to China (USA, 2019) [SDAFF Spring Showcase 2019]

For her second feature, Go Back to China, writer/director Emily Ting delivers a lighthearted family drama that attempts to comment on the dynamics of a toxic father-daughter relationship, as well as on the elusive morality that characterizes the ever-changing landscape of China’s modern economy. “Attempts” is the key word here. While not entirely without merits, the film’s grand ambitions falter in their execution, and instead we get a clunky plot railroaded towards a forced and unsatisfactory conclusion. 

Based loosely on Ting’s own experiences, the film tells the story of Sasha Li (Anna Akana), an unemployed fashion school graduate whose lavish and carefree lifestyle in LA comes to a sudden halt after her estranged father Teddy (Hong Kong veteran Richard Ng) cuts off her million-dollar trust fund. Left penniless, Sasha has no choice but to give in to her father’s demands and return to China to work in his toy factory. This is particularly tragic as she does not get along with her father ever since he abandoned Sasha and her mother. What follows is a series of sitcom-inspired fish-out-of-water scenes where Sasha has to adapt to a new home, one where Google and Facebook don’t exist, and where factory employees are grossly underpaid.

The conflict revolves almost entirely around Sasha’s father and his not-so-charming idiosyncrasies. Teddy is the catalyst for the plot, and without a doubt the most interesting part of the film. Not your typical “terrible dad,” Teddy is selfish, unable to take responsibility for his actions, prone to irrational bouts of anger, and quite astonishingly, not above blatant prostitution (although this is played as a joke in the film). Kudos to Ling for writing a completely unique father character, exploring new territory without sacrificing some of the best-known tropes of the overbearing “Asian dad.” Ng sells it completely, knowing very well when to be subtle and when to unleash hell.

Along similar lines, Akana also navigates her role as Sasha wonderfully. She shows that she’s able to handle both the comedy and drama equally well. Sadly, the script does not give her many chances to shine, as most of the time her character is passively reacting to what’s happening around her. Ting is perhaps too enamored with Sasha to offer any objective examination of her character. She has no real flaws. What appear as flaws are really virtues in disguise, along with a miraculous savior complex that never seems to do her wrong. Her first toy design for her father is a smashing success, and even though she makes a mistake later on, the catastrophe that ensues is hardly her fault. She can’t help but “fraternize” with the factory’s employees (to her sister’s chagrin) and fight for the rights to better working conditions. Yes, Sasha is a spoiled child who blows through half her trust-fund in less than a year, but the film hardly remembers that after the opening scenes.

It’s a shame, because the clumsiness of the film diminishes what would be an otherwise excellent drama about an estranged family. Ting’s familiarity with the circumstances she presents on screen (having experienced it herself) results in an interesting conundrum that both utilizes and surpasses the common stereotypes of a typical Asian family dynamic. Yet all that potential evaporates through a barrage of tiresome conversations and painfully delivered info-dumps that consume most of the film. If only Ting had someone clean up her dialogue and polish her scenes, it would allow the heart of the story to stand out.

Go Back to China presents a fascinating view of an entire culture through the unique lens of the filmmaker’s personal experiences, yet the film’s numerous flaws drown its message. Despite all that, the film asks a lot of interesting questions, and if nothing else it opens the door for other like-minded filmmakers to delve in the same territory.

Go Back to China is showing on April 13 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.

John Atom