Michael Ward on Saturday, September 14
In no way is this meant as a disparaging comment about Emily Ting’s entertaining and enjoyable Go Back to China, but this is a comedy/drama custom-made for viewing, at home, on Netflix, under a blanket with some popcorn, and maybe some ice cream.
Playing like a romantic comedy, with no romantic subplot to speak of, Go Back to China stars YouTube star and comedic actor Anna Akana as Sasha, a Chinese-American millennial, whiling away in Los Angeles. Her degree in fashion design has netted her exactly zero opportunities. Floundering, she earned a trust fund from her wealthy father of $1 million upon graduation, but that was about a year ago and half those funds are now gone.
Her mother, May (Kelly Hu), receives an alimony check from Sasha’s father, Teddy (Richard Ng), but all of that becomes frozen when Dad forces Sasha to agree to return home and work for the family’s toy company. Facing eviction and a declining credit card, she returns and begins reacquainting herself with her father and younger half-siblings she has never met before.
Ting’s film has a rhythm to it which makes it as infectious as a Top 40 pop song. Admittedly formulaic in terms of storyline and screenplay, the gruff, grumbly Teddy has something of a scandalous problem of loving women, then replacing them with mistresses - which has led to his having children from single digits in age to Carol (Lynn Chen), his 34-year-old first-born daughter, who manages day-to-day operations of the family corporation.
Go Back to China makes some interesting observations on the socio-economic culture of China, the treatment of workers on the assembly line, the stringent rules around social media and interaction in a communist country, and the patriarchal culture which defines Sasha’s family.
Perhaps Ting felt a bit unsettled in which direction to take her film. Sasha does not fall in love, no one catches her eye, but we do know pretty much where all of this is going. And while it feels like a movie we have seen countless times before, and one could argue we absolutely have and will again, this is quite the entertaining and thoughtful little film, with new optics to contemplate and consider.
Not all the social commentary lands effectively. Go Back to China gets caught up in the intrigue of how the American and Chinese cultures prove to be different, while also giving us a story of Sasha finding her voice and strength as an adult. She also attempts to help her father learn how to become a man who understands that, at the success of creating a global empire, he has likewise sacrificed so much for family he does not quite understand how to connect with on an emotional level.
Stubbornness reigns, but there is a buoyancy to Go Back to China which keeps things light and largely above-the-fray. While this might seem an easy movie to pick apart, an amusing scene will suddenly arrive. Good acting keeps us focused. And, before we realize it, Go Back to China goes down as smooth as a pint of your favorite Ben & Jerry’s, or the butteriest clump of popcorn you have ever tasted.