Poor little rich girl, Sasha Li is having a terrible birthday. First, she was told her fashion degree isn’t enough experience for her to waltz into a desired designer job. Then her estranged father calls to scold her for burning through half of her million-dollar trust fund. But hey, retail therapy can run as much as $1500 a day when you’re an L.A. fashionista! And then, Sasha’s totally humiliated when her credit card is declined, leaving her friends to cover the $2k bar bill! Without warning, her father’s cut her off. And if she wants her trust fund back, she’ll have to—as the title of this charming family-dramedy suggests—Go Back To China.
Hoping to instill a work ethic on his twenty-something daughter, Teddy (Richard Ng) offers her a deal/ultimatum. For one year, Sasha (Anna Akana) will live in his Shenzen mansion and work at his toy factory, which has built the family’s fortune. But for a twenty-something raised in America, coming back to China is a jolting culture shock. Sasha hates Chinese food and longs for an avocado. She’s crushed that Instagram and Google are blocked by the Chinese government. She sneers at Teddy’s beaming sugar-baby Lulu, who “takes care of” him in exchange for his funding her brother’s education. And Sasha is appalled at the working conditions at the factory, where employees eat bland mush in the cantina, make just $15 a day, and only get to see their families once a year. “You can’t apply your American standard of living to China,” her father scolds, but that’s easy for him to say when he eats out every lunch, drapes his home in opulence, and spoils rotten his tween twins, Christian and Dior.
Watching others toil all day for a paycheck that’s 100 times less than Sasha spends when sad has a profound effect on her. She stops pouting and starts asking questions. She learns about the unique hardships caused by government censorship, the pressure to keep labor costs down, and the One Child policy. She goes from eye-rolling to empathizing, while realizing her own privilege.
Based on writer/director Emily Ting’s own life, Go Back To China offers a lively coming-of-age narrative through Sasha’s discovery of a world beyond night clubs, boutique shopping, and bottle service. With a megawatt smile and an easy charm, Youtube star Anna Akana swiftly sets Sasha up as the kind of spoiled party girl we might see in a CW series or a Sex and the City reboot. Even when she’s being ridiculously entitled, you can’t help but root for her! Akana is a burst of fun in the outrageous first act where Sasha’s life is a dream (while she’s a bit of a nightmare). But things slow to a crawl in the second act as Ting starts piling in new characters and losing the thread.
There’s Sasha’s father, his girlfriend Lulu, his eldest daughter from his first marriage, the twins from his third, a duo of berated designers, and a bullied maid. Some of these characters exist solely to be hollered at by Teddy, whether it’s for playing video games at the supper table, failing to impress clients, or running out of eggs for breakfast. Others seems set up for an arc, like Lulu, who has a compelling sequence where she and Sasha have a tender and eye-opening heart-to-heart. But then she basically disappears so that the narrative can shift to Teddy’s relationship with his two eldest daughters, Carol (Lynn Chen) and Sasha.
The former’s been working at the factory for ten years and seems flustered that Sasha’s being treated like a princess for just showing up. In a post-screening Q&A, Ting shared that both Carol and Sasha were based on her and her relationship with her father, who allowed her to shoot the movie in his actual home and toy factory! Like Sasha, she was demanded to return to China and work in the family business, and did for ten years, like Carol. Perhaps this explains Ting’s sentimental devotion to untangling this father-daughter triangle of love and resentment. Still, things fall flat without Akana’s energy on screen. In Chinese cinema, Ng is a storied comedy star, but attempting drama here, he stumbles. With much barking and grumbling, Teddy comes off as varying degrees of frustrated and little else. In contrast, Carol is so reserved that she feels like she’s stepped out of a different film than the one Ting set up with Akana’s rom-com heroine verve.
Overall, Go Back To China is a fun and fascinating film that thoughtfully explores culture clash and the drama inherent if father-daughter dynamics. But it’s at its best when it allows its star to be its star. Akana is dazzling, whether she’s strutting about in a pastel-colored fur coat, biting into a well-earned apple, or trying to explain the concept of a “hipster” to a confounded co-worker. But when the film shifts focus to her family’s dynamics, Ting’s choices feel less effervescent and more over-earnest. In comes a slew of scenes stuffed with emotional exposition where characters detail exactly how they’re feeling instead of trusting in the subtext or the subtleties in facial expressions. This turns the second act ponderous and overlong. By the end, Go Back To China feels as if it’s transformed from a spirited female-fronted comedy to a cloying Hallmark movie. And while the end is fittingly upbeat for either, I wished we could go back to the promise of its cheeky and chic opening.
Header Image Source: Unbound Feet Productions