Once in a while you hit that point in a festival where the darker, layered, and torturous stuff starts to weigh on you and a break is necessary. A lot of the time we wind up with a hyper-violent action film with cool cinema effects and wild heroines. Other festivals offer a rom-com, something sweet to make the rest of your medicine go down.
This year, Tallgrass has opted for a sweet little coming-of-age story called Go Back to China, the second narrative feature from director Emily Ting. Four years off of the well-received film Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, this time around she’s made something that teeters on the edge of cloying and never quite crosses over. It’s sweet and fun without being obnoxious, a perfect film for almost anyone and a feel-good picture.
When spoiled rich girl Sasha Li (Anna Akana) finds her trust fund cut off by her father, Teddy Li (Richard Ng), she is forced to go back to China and work in his toy factory for one year before he will unfreeze her accounts. A lot of the focus early on in the film is about just what a wild, hedonistic person she is. She’s blowing two grand paying for her friends to attend her own birthday party, she’s buying expensive jewelry left and right, and most of her outerwear is made of some sort of dead animal (or at least expensive faux dead animal). Her father doesn’t have much of a different outlook, having decorated his home to look like an emperor’s palace while he gives his youngest kids (by his youngest wife to date) chardonnay with dinner. Everyone is living ridiculously large and there’s a bit of a narrowed eye thrown at consumerism but don’t worry about that because it’s not going to be present much outside of small moments.
What is on display is pretty fascinating. The idea of arrested development has always been interesting to me (go ahead, get the jokes out of your system…I’ll wait) and I think placing it on this massive scale is a lot of fun. The growth and maturity strikes each character, from Sasha and Teddy all the way to the toy designers working under them and even her sister, Carol (Lynn Chen). Usually it bugs the hell out of me when things come to such an easy and comfortable end but it just works. Easy isn’t always a bad thing. In cooking they tell you that if you’re going to make a classic, something that almost everyone can make, that you better do it right. Emily Ting has done it mostly right, the majority of the film charming and sweet. Hell, even Sasha’s party-girl friends come in clutch at the end and show that they were always real people.
That charm pushes the boundaries of obnoxious at times. It’s easy, it’s blunt, and it’s absolutely charming but it comes damn close to being to simple. What complicates it, adding a new layer, is that Teddy Li isn’t just an overbearing or demanding father figure but rather a shitbiscuit horndog. Sasha didn’t realize Carol existed till she was older, the whole time not knowing that Carol resented her existence. Teddy has been setting up families like franchise restaurants, getting them going and then sending them off with money to start a new one. This adds conflict between him and all of the children as well as adding issues for them to work out among themselves. He masks his ambition with talk of family and responsibility while acting selfish and unintentionally cruel. It gives everyone places to go with their character, you know? Sasha experiences an awakening and learns to use abilities she picked up in fashion school in productive ways, giving her relevance and extra payoff. I can dig it.
This isn’t going to be anyone’s favorite movie but it’s a damn good time. Given the sweet tone and visual flair (Ting’s script may be a bit tidy but her camera work in larger shots is absolutely gorgeous) I think it’ll find a good home on streaming services where an audience will find a love for it.