Emily Ting talks autobiographical inspiration for ‘Go Back to China’

Lynn Chen, Anna Akana, and Richard Ng in Go Back to China directed by Emily Ting.
Lynn Chen, Anna Akana, and Richard Ng in GO BACK TO CHINA. Dir. Emily Ting. Image courtesy of Unbound Feet Productions. Photo Credit: Josh Silfen.

Writer-director Emily Ting spoke to FF2 Media over the phone about her new film, Go Back to China, being released in theaters and VOD on March 6.

How exciting is it that Go Back to China is opening in theaters and VOD following its SXSW premiere last year and a run on the festival circuit?

Emily Ting: I am very excited. Thank you so much for asking that. I feel like it’s been such a long road leading to this release because we’re coming out a week before SXSW 2020. The whole process has been taking pretty much exactly a year. I was not able to attend the world premiere at SXSW last year because I was pregnant with twins. And now, the twins are going to turn one year old a week after this year’s SXSW. I feel it’s been a very long sort of gestation period and now this movie is finally gonna sort of be released into the world.

How did you get the idea for the film?

Emily Ting: Well, the film is largely autobiographical in that when I was 24, I actually went back to China and worked for the family business. A lot of this was based on my own experience of working for the family business for over a decade, basically. I would say the character of Sasha that Anna Akana plays in the movie is a much more exaggerated version of myself at 24. The older sister, Carol, played by Lynn Chen in the movie is sort of closer to where I am today. In a way, I kind of split myself into two different characters in the movie—one representing myself at 24 and one representing more closer to who I am today. It’s just a story that I’ve been wanting to tell for a very long time. I feel like I couldn’t really move on to any other projects until I sort of got this very personal story off of my chest. The whole thing was a very cathartic experience, basically.

So you weren’t that spoiled as Sasha?

Emily Ting: I hope not, but who knows. Maybe at 24, everyone else thought I was. I definitely exaggerated her character more for comedic effect.

Was the money freezing real?

Emily Ting: That was not real. The whole “you got cut off “and the whole “not being able to pay her power bill” was more for dramatic effect. I needed something that was very clear cut for her to go back to China. In real life, that situation was a lot more nuanced. It was a lot of more emotional guilting that got me to go back to China. It wasn’t so much, “I’m cutting you off and you can have no money.” That was done more for dramatic effect but I just needed something very succinct in 10 minutes, I could get her to go on the airplane and go back to China. In real life, I think the negotiations took so much longer because I really didn’t want to go back to China and work for the family. I had just graduated from film school at the time and I wanted to pursue film. But I would say, in real life, there was a lot more emotional guilt that went into it where “I’m getting old, I want to retire, how can you not pay back to your family, we raised you, and we pay for your schooling.” There was a lot of emotional blackmailing that went into the real situation.

Once you started writing the script, how quick did it take to write the first draft?

Emily Ting: Oh, yeah. I remember the whole process came together very quickly for me. I had a break, and I remember it was Christmas break 2016 so I had a two week break. I just very quickly sort of banged out the treatment for the movie and then once the treatment was done, it took maybe another two or three weeks to bang out the first draft. Overall, I think the writing process was about a four to five week period. I spent most of 2017 rewriting because so much of writing is rewriting and then trying to attach actors. Once actors are attached, they have notes on their characters and so I was just incorporating a lot of different people’s notes. But yeah, the first time I was able to bang out relatively quickly but then we spent way longer time than that to just perfect the draft and incorporating everyone’s notes.

What was the casting process like?

Emily Ting: It’s very interesting because when I was writing the movie, I didn’t really have a clear idea. You know how a lot of people say I was envisioning this actor when I wrote the role or I wrote this role with her in mind. I really had no idea who Sasha was going to be. It was only after I finished the first draft that I was trying to make a list of sort of all the available young Asian-American actresses, and it’s not a very long list unfortunately. This was before Crazy Rich Asians came out. We just don’t have a lot of known Asian-American actresses sort of in that age range.

At around the same time, I was doing a lot of general meetings with digital companies and at every digital company, Anna Akana’s name would come up as someone that I should  potentially work together with some time because they see both of us as Asian-American artists. So her name popped up and I Googled her and I kind of went down a rabbit hole of watching her YouTube videos.  I saw she was just so likable and her energy to me totally embodied who I envisioned Sasha to be. So as sort of a leap of faith, I just sent a straight offer, because at the time, she hadn’t done a lot of traditional media work and certainly not as the lead of a movie. But I just loved her so much just based on sort of her YouTube work and the little bit—she’s done supporting work in traditional media, and I watched all the movies that she was in. I thought she just has such a great energy. We reached out to her management and sent the offer. And luckily, she responded to the script right away. First we Skyped, and then we met in person. It all just came together. I just knew like the moment I met her that she was absolutely Sasha.

For the older sister Carol, Lynn Chen is someone who’s been in a lot of Asian-American independent film. I think if you go to any of the Asian-American Film Festival, there is a Lynn Chen movie playing every year. She’s just very active in the Asian-American independent film scene. I’ve been a fan of hers for a really long time since Saving Face. So with her, it was a very easy straight offer, too. I didn’t go to her management. We have a lot of common friends so I just send the script to her via friend. She read it over a weekend and responded to it right away and came on board.

The two sisters came together quite easily. The father character took a little bit of time. I had always wanted a Chinese actor for the role of the father and not necessarily an Asian-American actor who spoke perfect American English because the father character is someone who lives in Asia. We reached out to quite a lot of Asian actors but they are just not very responsive to independent film. They just don’t understand the concept of working for scale or that kind of stuff. But luckily, Richard Ng is someone that I do have a relationship with. He had a small cameo in my first film, Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. He played a fortune teller. He came up on set for half a day and shot his scene so we already had that relationship. Richard is someone who is very well respected in Hong Kong, a veteran actor. He’s been in over 200 movies so he’s certainly a name actor. But we didn’t reach out to him initially because we were afraid that he might be too old for the role. But with a little bit of makeup, hair cut, and wardrobe, we aged him 10 years down and he became the character of Teddy. Once we reached out to Richard, that came together very quickly as well.

So yeah, so that was three main cast members. Kelly Hu, who plays the mom, basically just has a cameo in the movie. My casting director didn’t think she would want to do it in such a small role. I said, there’s no harm in asking. We sent the script out, I think on a Thursday, and by Tuesday, she was in. Even though it was a small role, she just wanted to help out because she liked the script. That was sort of basically the main core cast came together and everyone else just came to audition.

What was the most challenging part of the production?

Emily Ting: I think the most challenging part of the production is the fact that we shot in three different cities and countries essentially. We shot for five days in Los Angeles and then we shot for three days in Hong Kong. We after 15 days in Asia total—three days in Hong Kong and 12 days in China. It’s just a lot of start and stop because every new city you go to, you have to start prepping from scratch. We shot in LA for five days. I had to halt production and go to China and prep for a month and then bring the main cast and some of the department heads over. I think that really hurt the momentum because by day five, we’re like really into it. Anna’s like, “Yeah, I’m Sasha.” It’s like, “Oh, well, hold on to that thought,” we gotta halt for a month so I could go to China and prep and then bring you guys back over. Also, shooting in a foreign country, I brought a lot of my department heads over. Same with my first film, there’s inevitably going to be some sort of cultural and language barrier between the American crew and working with the local Chinese crew. Because you shoot for not really that many days and the shoot is over, it’s like by the time everyone’s working relationship gels, the shoot is basically over. I would say that was probably the biggest challenge—just all the different locations and shooting a movie in a foreign country, basically.

Has your family had an opportunity to see the film?

Emily Ting: They finally saw the movie in August of last year. The premiere was at SXSW and it was all these film festivals. At every film festival, people are like, “Has your family seen it?” I’m like, “No, not yet. We’re just waiting for a premiere in Hong Kong.” We had our festival premiere in Hong Kong last August. I didn’t go to Hong Kong for the screening. I was here in LA and it was I think 4 AM when the movie got out and I was awake the whole night because I was sort of waiting very nervously to see what everyone thought and when the movie ended, I got a flurry of messages from friends and colleagues who just like loved the movie but there was one text that I was waiting for and it was my dad. I wanted to know what he thought of the movie. Finally, his text message came in and it was basically just five thumbs up emoji. I was like, “Okay, great. I guess dad liked it and it was fine.” He didn’t really say anything else about it. He just sent the five thumbs up emojis and he says, he thought I did a really good job with the storyline and he thought it was very entertaining and he thought I did a good job. His only criticism was, “But please don’t insult the Chinese Communist Party if you want to get distribution in China.” That was his one sort of criticism, I’m like, “Eh, well, you know.” Just because in the movie, I think there was one line where Sasha says, “Oh, damn Communist China” or something when she couldn’t get on her Facebook. So that was his only criticism of the movie. But yeah that was the only conversation we sort of had. Obviously, there are sort of deeper issues in the movie that we didn’t really discuss but he saw the movie, he knows how I feel about certain things, and we sort of just left it at that.

(C) Danielle Solzman (3/5/20) FF2 Media


Photo credits:  Unbound Feet Productions

Tags: Emily Ting, Go Back to China

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Danielle Solzman is a Chicago-based film critic and an aspiring filmmaker if she can ever put enough time aside to work on her feature-length trans-led political comedy script. When not in Chicago, she attends various film festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and Toronto. She graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a BA in Public Relations while earning a Masters in Media Communications from Webster University after writing a thesis paper on comic books against the backdrop of the American political culture.
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