“It was always my dream to have all my children under one roof,” Teddy Li (Richard Ng) proclaims in “Go Back to China,” Emily Ting’s wonderful second feature, which like the toy factory owner’s palatial mansion has quite the high ceiling. Surrounded by his brood from multiple marriages, from his youngest Christian (Tiger Ting) and Dior (Aviva Wang) to his eldest Carol (Lynn Chen), he beams with pride when the family is joined in Shenzhen by Sasha (Anna Akana), who has spent most of her living abroad in Los Angeles. She is none too thrilled to be recalled to the mainland after maxing out the credit cards that have been extended to her on her father’s largesse and presumably she’s been brought back to learn some responsibility, though her presence opens the question of Teddy’s own accountability when it becomes obvious he was far more comfortable supporting his daughter financially than emotionally, leaving her with his ex-wife (Kelly Hu) in California after already ditching Carol’s mom under similar circumstances.
The family reunion is uncomfortable to be sure, but Ting nonetheless tells the story of the Lis with considerable warmth, even when they may not have it for each other. Following up her charming 2015 walk-and-talk drama between strangers, “Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” the writer/director traces how a clan that may feel as if they don’t actually know one another coalesces as the trend-savvy Sasha is able to breathe new life into the tired toy designs of her father’s business while being around Carol, who set aside her own ambitions to work for Teddy nearly a decade earlier, instills a set of cultural values that she comes to appreciate. It’s perspective that Ting picked up during her own return to China years ago when she was beckoned from New York to become the CEO for her father’s company, an experience she previously documented in the 2008 film “Family Inc.”
A decade later, her fictional take could be even richer, thanks to the experience of starting a family on her own and becoming an even stronger filmmaker in the intervening years, eliciting nuanced performances from the social media star Akana in her first leading role, the always radiant Chen and the spry Ng and deftly handling the cultural sensitivities at play to discover what’s universal about the needs and wants within different societies that are often lost in translation. With “Go Back to China” premiering this week at SXSW, Ting was joined by Chen to talk about the sweet dramedy, the complications of filming on two continents and getting such a great cast to commit to the project.
How did this come about?
Emily Ting: It was loosely based on my family and I just feel like everyone has that one story that changes the course of their life and for me, this was it. I went back to China when I was 24 to work in the family business and for the longest time, I wondered what my life would be like if I hadn’t taken that journey. It’s impossible to know, but doing this movie was very cathartic. I’ve been wanting to tell this story for a really long time, but I didn’t really know how to tell it. I made a documentary about this very subject called “Family Inc.” 11 years ago that’s very different because that was when I’d just gotten back to China and I was just like Sasha. I felt that my life was over [when I was asked to come back] and I was very angry with my family, but having this 10 years to look back and having this perspective really helped me in figuring out how to tell this story because now I was able to split [my own experience] into two different characters — Sasha is a very exaggerated version of myself at 24 and who I am now is a lot closer to the Carol character. I didn’t [actually] have an older sister, but in a way, they’re both different sides of me.
Lynn, how do you get involved in this?
Lynn Chen: It’s funny because I had just seen “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong” on Netflix before I found out that Emily was interested in me for the movie, and afterwards, I immediately looked up the writer/director and I thought, “Who is this woman and why don’t I know her?” I found out we had a few friends in common and then just like a day later, one of those friends reached out to me and said, “Emily Ting has written a movie and she’s interested in you.” And I’m like, “The same Emily Ting whose movie I just watched?!?!?” So at that point, I was like “Yes, whatever it is, yes.” Because I loved the movie. But she and I met and when she told me about the project and that we’d be shooting in China, it was just like this is an incredible opportunity and I loved the script. I already knew Anna and I wanted to work with her and I wanted to work with Emily, so of course I wanted to do it no matter what.
How did Anna come onboard?
Emily Ting: The first character we were trying to cast was obviously Sasha and I wanted someone who had a little bit of a following for the lead and it was surprisingly hard to come up with a list for [actresses in] that age range. For Carol, there are more ladies working in their thirties, but for someone who’s 24 or 25, it was really hard and I hadn’t seen any of Anna’s YouTube videos, but I was doing a lot of general meetings at digital companies. Every single one of them [said], “Oh, you should work with Anna Akana some time because she’s Asian and you’re Asian.” So I went home and went down a rabbit hole of watching her YouTube videos and I was like, “Oh my gosh, she’s so insanely watchable.” That’s exactly what I thought Sasha would be, just watching the way she’d carry herself, but I hadn’t seen her in anything really traditional. She had a cameo in “Ant-Man” and [some] supporting roles in other movies, but she never really carried one before.
But I took a leap of faith and I made an offer and at the time, the people around me were like “Are you sure? She’s a YouTuber…” and it’s like “No, she is this character. I feel it in my gut.” There was still a little trepidation because this is the first time she’s a lead in a movie, but even from the rehearsal stage, she blew me away and I think she made the movie much funnier than it would’ve been with someone else. On the page, I don’t think anyone ever described the script as a comedy — I didn’t want the character of Sasha to be too broad because it could really go either way. If you played it too much like a spoiled princess, no one would follow you on this journey — but then after watching the movie, a lot of people [have said], “Oh, it plays really funny.” So I thought she struck the perfect balance between comedy and drama, and I hope people see her in this movie and give her more opportunities in traditional media because I think she’s ready.
None of the characters fall into easy characterizations – for instance, I could easily see Carol being played as bitter, having had to stay in China to work for their father this whole time, but you come to admire the decisions she’s had to make for herself. Lynn, were there certain choices you were proud of in playing the role?
Lynn Chen: Well, luckily for me, Emily was really specific. We did a couple rehearsals before we started, so it became very clear to me who she should be and I agree with you. It could come off like she’s this conniving bad guy if you played her in a certain way, but I always try and approach all my characters, whoever they are with their humanity first. I saw her as somebody who really felt stuck and I know what that feels like, to feel like you have your whole life planned for you and wanting to see what it feels like to break out of that, and it was really great to have Emily having a pretty strong vision of who that was.
Emily Ting: To me, Carol’s actually the most interesting character, even though she’s not the [true] lead. Sasha and Teddy wear their emotions on their sleeves, like they are who they are, but Carol’s the one who’s got all this [inner] conflict and I felt closest to her. I remember during test screenings, that was very important to me – “Do you like Carol? Do you sympathize with her?” And I felt like we really succeeded with the character because you could go either way. Like people could turn on her, but people understood and I think so much of it was in Lynn’s performance.
I understand the shoot was divided between an LA shoot first and a Chinese shoot second – while that was practical, did it yield anything creatively, like you could get a feeling of the movie before shooting most of it?
Emily Ting: There wasn’t a grand plan creatively in terms of shooting the L.A. stuff first. In fact, I always wanted to shoot the China stuff first because that’s the bulk of production and then come back and do the one-week shoot here in L.A., but because we didn’t cast the dad up until it was so close to production time, I didn’t have enough time to prep in China, so I was like, “You know what? I’m here in L.A. It’s easy for me to prep here. Let’s just shoot the L.A. stuff first and then go back to China.” It was probably the most challenging part of making this film because we shot it in three different cities and three different countries, really, so it was like prepping three different movies. Even though we only shot for five days in L.A., we still need to crew up, lock locations and that took prep time and then we had to halt production so that I could go to China and prep. I remember at the end of the fifth day, Anna and I were like, “Oh, we wish we could keep making this movie” because she’s in the character – we’re in it — and then we have to halt for me to fly to China to prep for another month because I had to lock locations there. Creatively, it did work out because we figured out who Sasha was before she went to China and if we had gone the other way around, we might not have.
How did you land Richard to play the father?
Emily Ting: I was joking at the time, “For a movie about daddy issues, it’s impossible to find [a daddy].” [laughs] I actually had to push production a couple times because we hadn’t cast the dad role. I wanted to cast a known Asian veteran actor, somebody who might not necessarily be known here, but has done a lot of movies in Asia and the first person I thought of was Richard because we had a relationship [from “Already Tomorrow”]. If you remember from the last film, he played the fortune teller. But Richard is almost 80 and the internal consensus was he was a little too old to play the character who was supposed to be in his late sixties/early seventies, so we nixed that idea and then we started sending offers out to name Asian actors, but it proved to be such a difficult process. Some actors showed genuine interest like, “Oh, this is interesting. I haven’t done an English-language movie in a while,” but they would string us along and wouldn’t actually say, “Yes, I’m going to do it.” “Give me more time to think about it.” This just went on for months, and I even tried to then reverse, like “maybe I’ll go with an Asian-American actor” but it was the same thing. We would send a script and we just didn’t get a response. And it was just very, very frustrating.
Finally, I was scouring the internet one day and I found a picture of Richard when he was younger. He was wearing a suit and Richard, in normal life, has a head of white hair and a white beard, but I was like, “If we just gave him a dye job and a haircut, we could age him down 10 years.” So I wrote Richard personally and I sent him the script and he responded pretty quickly. He thought the first draft made Teddy a little too mean and he wanted a more well-rounded character, which I agreed with, so I worked on it with him, and then he came onboard. I [thought] if I had just gone with my gut initially, I could’ve saved months of anxiety of no one wanting to play my dad. [laughs] But it worked out great because Richard doesn’t need to be doing this movie. He’s pretty much retired, but he wanted to help me. He’s like, “I love to help young filmmakers fulfill their dreams,” and he did.
Kelly Hu, who played the mom, was [similar]. My casting director was like, “No name Asian actress is going to commit” [because that part is] like two scenes in the movie, basically a cameo, but Kelly read the script – the offer went out on a Thursday and she got back to us on a Tuesday, like “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And even though it was a very small role, she’s like I love the script and I want to support other Asian-American female filmmakers.
Was shooting overseas any easier after already doing “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong”?
Emily Ting: That is such a different beast of a movie. Both movies had different challenges.” With “Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” we were just thrown into a very uncontrolled situation, shooting on the streets and we couldn’t block any pedestrians. I just threw my two actors into the mix of Hong Kong and was like, “Let’s just go.” We were outside every day and it was really, really hot. We were dodging the rain every single day and we would shoot around it. But the actual movie was actually very simple because it’s mostly just the two of them. We only shot for 14 days and for most, we only shot for six hours. With this film, because we shot in my family’s toy factory and my dad’s house, it was all very controlled, so from a production standpoint, it was easier. But from a directing standpoint, it was much tougher.
We shot for 20 days and once you have more characters, there’s more blocking and coverage and [it affects] something as simple as the actors’ wardrobe – on the last one, I did the wardrobe and they had two outfits, but on this one, it spans over a year and we have all these different characters and I’m somebody who likes to have everything color coordinated, so it took a lot of science almost to piece together everyone’s wardrobe. When the story becomes more ambitious with more characters, it just complicates things more and I don’t think we ever had a day that was less than 12 hours. It’s funny because we had a higher budget than “Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” but it felt like a smaller budget because we were trying to do more with not that much more money, so everyone just kept scrambling. We actually had a smaller crew this time than we did for “Already Tomorrow” and that movie, we had two cameramen, steadicam everyday and we couldn’t even afford that on this film.
Still, you have plenty of production value and I saw Lynn’s vlog diaries of the shoot that looked like the cast and crew was as much in awe as I was…
Lynn Chen: I think we all felt like Sasha when we walked into that house [of Teddy’s]. Everyone needed to take at least 20 minutes to be like, “Is this for real? I cannot believe this is an actual house that someone lives in.” There’s so much to look at. Every place we went to – the toy factories and just the cultural shock of getting your hair washed…
Emily Ting: For eight dollars.
Lynn Chen: Yeah, everything was just like “Wow.” I was so happy when Emily was like, “You guys can do social media, tape whatever, it’s fine. Nothing’s off-limits. I wanted to share what we’re experiencing. It really was fun.
Emily Ting: I think it might’ve been fun for the actors. [laughs]
“Go Back to China” will play at SXSW at the Alamo Lamar B on March 10th at 11:15 am and March 15th at 2:15 pm.