SXSW 2019: Go Back to China
Emily Ting’s provocatively-titled Go Back to China is hardly ever as abrasive or discomfiting as its name suggests. Aside from a brush with some blatant racism early in the picture, the title’s declarative statement serves as more of a simple recognition of the inciting incident of the plot, rather than an exploration of the festering xenophobia that has putrefied in America over the last few years. In fact, though its thoroughly charming lead performances proves its salvation, Go Back to China feels entirely similar to any number of tales of familial reconciliation.
When the hard-partying Sasha (a wonderfully charming Anna Akana) is cut off by her estranged father (Richard Ng) on her birthday, she must travel to China to help make ends meet at his plush-toy factory. As she meets his other daughters (Lynn Chen), and other lovers (Kendy Cheung), Sasha makes the most of her situation and helps him innovate and impress buyers growing tired of the same stale designs. And, in the process, she comes to help improve conditions in his factory for the workers.
To say that Go Back to China falls into the comfortable rhythms of estranged-father reconciliation stories would be both entirely accurate and to damn it with a label it occasionally transcends. It is indeed true that the plot of the film is entirely predictable. It comes as no surprise when Sasha’s background as a fashion-designer helps fortify her father’s company’s exact weak-spot; a point driven home when, during a client meeting, Sasha intercedes and convinces a buyer to reconsider in a comically-short amount of time. There is no great shock when key characters reveal their ulterior motives, entirely in line with the clichéd dramatizations of sibling conflicts and paternal desires. And, perhaps most problematically, and all too common in the estranged-father sub-genre of family dramas, this father, Teddy, is given a relatively clean-slate by the end of the picture, despite needing his daughter to sacrifice her trust fund to give his workers basic rights (like seeing their families more than once a year) and consistently and belligerently berating his workers. And, when he does show remorse, late in the film, it is not for the consistent exploitation of his workers — a realization that never truly seems to dawn on Teddy — but rather, and rightfully so, for his estrangement from and abandonment of Sasha. His arc is that of the business-minded father with a heart of gold — something Sasha’s mother reinforces at the beginning of the third act — but his actions seem to speak to a heart of fool’s gold.
All this having been said, both Sasha and Carol’s (Lynn Chen) arcs are satisfactorily wending. Sasha’s journey from vapid, party-animal to mature and decent artist is a joy to watch, partly because of the ways she proves to be both the best of her father and far better than her father. But, part of the success in her construction is the way in which her father’s selfishness and career-driven exploitation of those around him informs her early, spoiled tantrums. Roughly halfway through the film, all comes into stark relief and the sins of the father can be seen clearly as the sins of the daughter. And, better yet, when she begins to thaw her father to ideas like giving his workers edible food and providing them with an opportunity to see their families more than once a year (radical ideas, I know), we see a young woman willing to use her privilege and power to help others, not just herself. Perhaps it is simple to appear decent when the counterpoint is a selfish, egomaniacal, cheating father, but Akana does a wonderful job nonetheless. Similarly, Lynn Chen shines as Carol weaving back and forth between the friendly, estranged half-sister and equally vicious businesswoman. Her arc is far less predictable and with the more nuanced role comes a more nuanced performance. Carol is stuck in a cycle of entrapment and self-entrapment; a cycle which feels altogether believable and which provides a perfect springboard for Sasha’s late-narrative character-developments. It also, ironically, provides a template by which Richard Ng’s Teddy could have been given more humanity and which could have served to emphasize the film’s vaporous themes of selfishness as a heritable disease whose cycle must be broken by empathy and compassion.
Go Back to China doesn’t necessarily have any new ideas, a fact that might be damning were it not for two central performances that manage to puff their lungs blue blowing life into characters that pretty exactly fit the archetypal molds codified by every familial-reconciliation tale since forever. It’s certainly not that the film isn’t a pleasant watch — it definitely is that — but its peculiar and problematic choice to neatly wrap up a thoroughly unfit boss’s character arc is disconcerting. The film knows that he is in the wrong, treats this problem, and then leaves it unresolved before walking off into the sunset. It is perhaps worth a watch to see two central performances that are solid and charming and it is certainly nice to see a film with all Asian leads and a cast primarily of East Asian descent. But, there’s an underbaked core to this film that could have used a few more pairs of eyes and a more rigorous examination of an almost thoroughly unsympathetic character arc given a sympathetic conclusion. It’s just a shame that the film was unable to locate all the string to tie the loose ends together, otherwise it might have been a totally pleasant and tidy family drama.