Writer/director Emily Ting is premiering her second narrative feature, Go Back to China, at SXSW this week. Ting has calledGo Back to China the "most personal film" she's made in her career. And that makes sense, since the plot of the movie is loosely based on her own experiences with a reluctant return to China, and the family drama of helping to run her father's toy company.
"I was in a very different state of mind back then, because I really did think going back to China was the end of my life..."
This same drama was also captured in Ting's 2008 documentary Family Inc., which she made when her father asked her to take over his business in Hong Kong. She didn't know how to say no, and decided to give it a try for a year. When it became more than she could handle, she turned on the camera and made the documentary.
Now, she has returned to tell the story in a new way, hoping the story of Go Back to China will reach a broader audience than the documentary. The SXSW dramedy features Anna Akana as the wayward daughter blowing through her trust fund and Richard Ng as her overbearing, old-fashioned father.
Developing directing chops
"Family Inc. was made over a decade ago, when I was in my early 20s," Ting said. "So I think I was in a very different state of mind back then, because I really did think going back to China was the end of my life. Now it's 10 years later, and I think with a little bit of perspective, I could see how entitled I was back then."
Ting said she also had the chance to bring experience from directing her first narrative film, a 2015 festival favorite called Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, to this feature.
"I think I definitely gained a lot more confidence from my first feature," Ting said. "Going in as a first-time filmmaker, I was really nervous. I was nervous to talk to the actors. I was nervous to direct my department heads, because they all had more experience than I had."
This growth in confidence allowed her to tackle a more ambitious project, with more characters and more complex scenes, on a shoot that lasted 21 days.
"I think it helped to have had Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong under my belt, because when going out to actors, that's something that they could reference," she said. "Oftentimes, for an actor, they have to take a leap of faith when they're working with a first-time director. Especially when it's a movie that has to be shot overseas. They have to go halfway around the world to work with someone. What if they turn out to be terrible, and the movie looks really amateurish?"
When a director has the confidence and passion for a project like Ting had, that leap of faith might seem a bit easier.
Fictionalizing her own life
"In between making [Family Inc.] and now, I've learned a lot in terms of the rules the screenwriting, the three-act structure," Ting said. "So this was not literally a biopic of my life or my family's life, this is very much a fictionalized account that was inspired by my family."
Drawing upon such personal experiences and emotions have lent an authenticity to Ting's storytelling, but at the same time she has wisely made the characters in the film more exaggerated when needed. At the same time, she said her real-life family is even more complex than the one that made it on screen, so she took some liberties to simplify their portrayal.
The main character, Sasha, is an exaggerated version of Ting as she was at 24. Sasha's older sister in the film, Carol, is more like Ting as she sees herself now.
"In a way, the Carol character is who I am today," she said. "And everything she tells Sasha in the movie is everything I wish I could have told myself at 24. That the world is not ending, that you will actually end up finding yourself."
In this way, Ting is almost confronting her younger self through film, and recognizing her own weaknesses and growth through storytelling that feels authentic.
On getting a feature made
Ting self-financed Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, willing to take the risk as a first-time feature director on a project that she was passionate about.
"The movie was successful in that it was well-received, and we made our money back," Ting said. "And I was able to get representation out of that film. So it was like everything that you wanted to get out of a first feature."
She said she naively expected that making her second feature would be a piece of cake.
"Even starting from my reps, when I sent them the script, they were not very optimistic about it," she said. "Their first reaction was, 'Oh, it's so Asian. Who are you going to cast in it? It's just such a hard sell.' They just didn't really see any commercial viability in it."
"Their first reaction was, 'Oh, it's so Asian. Who are you going to cast in it? It's just such a hard sell.' They just didn't really see any commercial viability in it."
This was in 2017, prior to the release of smash hit Crazy Rich Asians, which has shown the industry that Asian-centric stories can perform well.
Ting had to consider her options. Did she want to rewrite the script and not feature an all-Asian cast? Or did she want to self-finance again?
"I doubled-down on my filmmaking career," Ting said with a laugh. "And I basically just rolled the money we made from the first movie into the second movie."
Sometimes this level of commitment is necessary to pursue the projects you really want to make. Ting is hoping it will pay off, starting with her SXSW premiere, in an industry atmosphere that is now more receptive toward films with Asian characters.
"This is how I feel," she said. "The audience has always been there for diverse stories, but it's the gatekeepers who have failed to see the potential."
"The audience has always been there for diverse stories, but it's the gatekeepers who have failed to see the potential."
On film school
Ting graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, although she then took a long detour to return to China. By the time she returned, she said, most of her friends had moved to Los Angeles, and she had been out of the film scene for several years. The key element that film school provided her, in this case, was the connection to a community of filmmaking friends. While she said she benefited from Tisch, hands-on experience was even better.
"I would say if you either have the money to go to film school or to make a feature, I think you should just go ahead and make your feature," she said.
Ting faced the choice herself of potentially going back to school in LA or jumping straight back into the indie film scene. She picked the latter and gained on-the-set experience. She said she learned as much from simply writing, reading and doing.
"...if you either have the money to go to film school or to make a feature, I think you should just go ahead and make your feature"
Making a movie in China
Although this is her second feature to shoot in China, Ting said she faced some cultural pushback while on the set of this more complex project.
"I think the biggest challenge, in terms of working in Asia, is that the whole concept of indie film, like these microbudget indie films, is quite foreign to them," she said.
That is, the studio system in Hong Kong is very established, and professional filmmaking jobs are readily available and viewed as a straightforward profession rather than an art form. The film industry in LA, in contrast, is filled with hungry up-and-comers ready to work for lower rates to get the IMDb credit.
"Over there, it's like, 'What is IMDb? Why do I need a credit? I work constantly,'" Ting said.
Ting also said that generally, Chinese crews don't shoot or direct scenes in the same way.
"They don't cover the entire scene," Ting said. "Like how we would, in typical coverage, run the entire scene, start with a master, and then punch into the coverage, the close-up. But you run the entire scene."
Chinese filmmaking, on the other hand, involves leaving a static camera on an actor until the line reading is right, and then moving on to another scene.
"So the way we direct apparently is very time consuming," Ting said. "And they're like, 'Wait, we're running the entire scene again?' I'm like, 'Yes!'"
Go Back to China draws upon these cultural differences and highlights diverse ways of life in a similar way that is refreshing and enlightening, making the film not only an enjoyable family dramedy but a learning experience, as well.
Go Back to China premieres March 9.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.