Thursday, March 05, 2020

Go Back to China (But Not Now)

Actually, this wouldn’t be such a great week for Sasha Li’s titular travel plans. However, her father’s toy factory would probably be reopened in accordance with Xi “Winnie the Flu” Jinping’s orders—public safety be damned, for the sake of his economic goals. It is during a much less contagious time, not so long ago in Shenzhen that Li reluctantly journeys to the Chinese home she hardly knows in Emily Ting’s Go Back to China, which opens tomorrow in New York.

The entitled Li has been blowing through her trust fund while waiting to magically land her perfect job in the fashion industry, despite her lack of work experience, until her wealthy father Teddy abruptly cuts her off. She has lived in America since her parents’ divorce, but now he wants her to come work in his tacky toy family and become part of his Chinese family. That involves getting to know her half-sisters: Carol who came before her and young Dior, who was the product of his third failed marriage (along with her brother, Christian).

Actually, Li rather likes getting to know her step-siblings better. She also gets used to doing the work thing. She even makes the best of provincial Shenzhen. It is her father’s arrogance and refusal to accept parental responsibility that keep fueling her resentment. However, she is not alone on that score.

Surprisingly, Ting presents a rather likable story of culture clash and family dysfunction that never peddles cheap “China is awesome” propaganda. She clearly critiques China’s vast economic disparities and the ostentatious consumption of its oligarchic class. In fact, it even shows signs the mighty Chinese economy is slowing down, pre-Coronavirus era.

Anna Akana’s energetic performance strikes the right balance for Sasha Li: sweetly naïve and a bit clueless in the Clueless tradition, but never to an extent that would sabotage viewer sympathy. She is also pretty convincing when it to expressing parental resentment and airing family grievances. Arguably, her scenes playing off the more reserved Lynn Chen as loyal half-sister Carol are some of the film’s best. Richard Ng is also perfectly cast as Teddy Li, whom he plays with suitable prickliness. Plus, it is kind of mind-blowing that Kelly Hu plays Sasha’s Americanized mom.

Of course, both Sasha and Teddy will learn life lessons before they mostly likely come together as family, but Go Back still probably would have seen surprisingly topical and relevant six or eight months ago. Sadly, today, even a brief side-trip to a tranquil-looking Hong Kong seems rather dated. That is life and the news cycle. The Bohemian spirit of Ting’s previous feature, It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong was more seductive and inviting than the wholesomeness of Go Back, but her latest is still an appealingly plucky indie. Recommended for fans of fish-out-of-water comedies, Go Back to China opens tomorrow (3/6) in New York, at the Village East.