Go Back To China will no doubt received mixed reviews from audiences of different backgrounds, but I’m of the opinion that it was a fantastic film. Part teen movie, semi-autobiographical, it toed the line between demonstrating really quite poignant social commentary with devilish humor. What’s especially unique about this film is the way in which director Emily Ting used her real-life experiences to craft it: filming in her father’s house, and his very real toy factory with his workers, and even having her younger brother cast as the protagonist, Sasha’s, younger brother, all mean that she has put her personal stamp on the film. There was a real buzz in the theater as stars and filmmakers attended the World Premiere, making the event an event that can’t be replicated even by subsequent screenings.
Go Back To China
Director: Emily Ting
Release Date: March 9, 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)
Sasha is a spoiled, rich girl living in LA. Out of work for a year after graduating from her fashion degree, she desperately tries to encourage potential employers that she has potential and that curating her fashion collection is a valid pastime. As a performer, Anna Akana is fabulous: her facial expressions are a real picture, presenting everything that she’s feeling as an open book. Like a truly spoiled child, she doesn’t believe that she is — and therein lies the premise of the film, challenging her perceptions of wealth and value. Her father lives in China and runs a successful toy business, as he has done for 34 years. It transpires that she has an older half-sister, Carol, who lives near her father and his apparently endless coterie of illegitimate offspring (even a disturbingly young new mistress, who is 22 — at least three decades younger than himself). Together, Carol and her father run the toy empire, which is ironically the cause of so much disarray in all of their lives, when its purpose is to bring joy to countless children outside of the family.
After some time of fruitlessly searching for a job and blowing her money on one too many shot-fuelled parties, Sasha’s father freezes all of her assets, including her credit card, and forces her to return to China in order to earn it back. In some of the film’s most publicized shots, she comically sits amid a sea of blue overall-clad workers in an obscene pink fur coat, pouting at the misfortune of her situation.
As it happens, Sasha comes to realize that she really doesn’t have things too bad after all — there is a lot that she takes for granted in life. I felt that this is true for so many of us, and in many ways, it had a personal significance — coming from a family of Asian heritage, I saw parallels with my own grandparents’ extraordinary work ethic in order to provide their family with the best possible life. As Sasha’s (or rather, director Emily’s) story shows, taking life for granted can be an inevitable reaction to this kind of upbringing, but it doesn’t mean one is resigned to a life of oblivious luxury.
No, one of the most important lessons that Sasha learns is that she can use her skills and her influence to help others and to improve their lives. There are a number of topics touched on through her interactions with other characters. While sometimes formulaic, they were important in setting up the social commentary of the picture. It turns out that everyone that she has preconceived ideas about and judges so harshly for their life choices actually has a compelling backstory and motivations for their actions. For example, his father’s young mistress is a victim of aspirational poverty, relying on her income to support her brother; two designers she befriends have limited access to the world outside of the Communist China bubble that they’re ensconced in, and have to support families back home in the Philippines, even if it means succumbing to long and demanding hours at work. When Sasha befriends workers, she realizes that their eating conditions are just a little less glamorous than the luxury that she’s used to. And, the discovery that their daily wage is the equivalent of $15 per day — well, given that the film’s second sequence shows her not batting an eyelid at the $1500 price tag on a new impulse-buy jacket, her actions speak for themselves.
Perhaps it was easy to see the next move the film was going to take, but I don’t think that its predictability was really a problem. The more important thing about the narrative was that it outlined Sasha’s character development and her personal journey. One might even talk about Edward Said’s Orientalism, and how Western culture has such a diluted view of China and the East that we reduce people and culture to stereotypes. In fact, the film surprised me by being surprisingly complex: each character was revealed to be at once flawed and trying their best, just doing what they can to make the best of their life, even if it means questionable actions.
While there were a few things I might have changed, such as Sasha’s choice of friends on returning to LA — how could she return after seeing so much poverty and such terrible conditions? But then, any of us could ask ourselves the same thing after seeing the same stories on the big screen. I’d also like to know whether the workers that were featured in the film received any compensation for the work they put in, beyond monetary incentives — perhaps having their story up on the global stage is a good start, revealing how privileged we are in our cultures and how important it is to take notice of the people who work so hard and don’t get nearly as much in return as we might expect. It may divide opinions, but I personally think that any film that encourages viewers to think about their life, shifting their worldview and considering the contribution that they can make in other people’s lives is a valuable piece of work indeed.