Produced, written and directed by Emily Ting, Go Back to China tells the story of Sasha Li (Anna Akana), a Chinese-born but American-raised millennial with a “useless” fashion design degree and no work experience of which to speak.
When she blows through half of her million-dollar trust fund, her father (Richard Ng) cuts her off and makes her a deal: Come back to China, work for a year in the family toy factory alongside her half-sister, Carol (Lynn Chen), and he’ll return the rest of Sasha’s money. Backed into a corner, Sasha agrees and, naturally, goes back to China, where she learns some hard truths about herself, her family and the world in exactly 90 minutes.
Go Back to China is an impressive little feature, if only because it has all the ingredients of a rom-com but, thankfully, none of the romance. Sasha doesn’t find love in China; instead, she finds herself and, more importantly, she finds perspective. It takes some truly conniving familial extortion to make Sasha the fish out of water she needs to be in order to grow as a person, but in this case, the ends justify the means. Once Sasha sees the life on the other side that makes her trust fund possible — the tedious assembly lines, the barely edible cafeteria food, the trips home the factory workers are only able to take once a year to the kids they left behind — her priorities shift. By the end, Sasha cares less about maintaining a lifestyle than she does about giving back to those who work so much harder for so much less. It’s a heartwarming journey, a kind of fairy tale writ over the harsher truths of capitalism, where the rich actually can feel compassion for the poor.
In the middle of all this, Sasha also contends with reconciling her place within her pretty unusual Chinese family: Her father, a serial adulterer who had four children with three progressively younger wives and couches his non-involvement with his children as a sacrifice he made so his business could provide for them; and her elder half-sister Carol, who bears most of the weight of their father’s expectations. As you might expect, Sasha’s relationships with her father and her sister start out shaky, deepen and then break in that typical rom-com fashion. But it’s worth repeating here that the formula feels fresh in this surprisingly novel context: Girl meets family, girl loses family and girl finds a middle ground with family so they can all live happily ever after.
Akana shines as Sasha, bringing a truly expressive performance to a character who, in less able hands, might come off as one-dimensional, but that’s never the case here — with Sasha, or with any of the other characters. The three lead actors inhabit characters who feel like they could easily exist off the page, which is a testament to Ting’s writing. Their experiences are not universal, but they are familiar and flawed enough to feel like it.
Another highpoint of Ting’s ability as a writer and director is her turning the movie’s pastel color palette into a plot point. I don’t want to say much more because the execution of it is so delightful that it made me laugh out loud, but suffice to say Ting has both an astute eye for using visuals unexpectedly and a talent for creating relatable characters. She’s certainly a director to watch, and Go Back to China is not a film to be missed.
Go Back to China is a part of the Official Selection at the 2019 Heartland Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.
5:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 13 — AMC Traders Point
10:20 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 19 — AMC Traders Point