Interview with Emily Ting: Directing, Storytelling and Her Feature Film ‘Go Back To China’

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Go Back To China is a witty, culturally diverse, and more importantly, heartfelt film.

Having watched the film, it’s easy to see how much director Emily Ting had to say about not just her own culture, but about her own life. Its genre as a semi-autobiographical comedy gave her the freedom to explore different avenues of her life through her own lens.

Digital Fox was lucky enough to catch up with her to ask her a few questions about her new feature film Go Back To China.

Q: Prior to your directing debut, you worked primarily as a producer. How has that helped you with taking on more creative roles as a storyteller?

A: I had taken a detour from my filmmaking career in my 20s, and producing other people’s films became a way for me to get back into it in my 30s. It was film school all over again for me. I learned a lot by observing the directors that I was producing for, and I also forged invaluable relationships on those projects. Producing micro budget films also taught me how to work efficiently with very limited resources.

Q: Why did you decide to work in the film industry?

A: I have always liked telling stories, and film is the way I chose to be a storyteller because it encompasses so many different art forms, from writing to acting to music.

Emily Ting on set for her debut film, It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. Source: My FilmViews

Q: Tell us about the story writing process for Go Back To China and how you were inspired to write this film.

A: This is a story that is very personal to me, and I’ve wanted to tell it for a very long time. But I’ve struggled for many years on how to tell this story narratively. I think that I was stuck on staying too literal to the events that have actually happened in my life.

Once I decided to use the frame work of the coming of age story of a rich spoiled girl, the story beats just came out really naturally.  And I think that the distance between my life now and where I was when I went back to China in my 20s created the necessary perspective I needed in order to tell this story objectively.

Q: Something I thought you handled really well was the family dynamic and the decision to explore these relationships in a more nuanced way. What drew you to exploring this theme?

A: The family in Go Back To China is very much based on my own family dynamics, so it was easy to create these very specific characters. But the film also presents a very universal portrait of a fractured and dysfunctional family, which many people can relate to. Making this film has been a very cathartic process. It allowed me to say things to my family members that I have been too afraid to in real life.

emily ting family
At its core, Go Back To China is a film about family. Source: The Moveable Fest

Q: You also looked at the theme of money not making up for quality family time. The parallels you drew from the factory workers and the main family dynamic was so interesting. How did you come to exploring this in your film?

Sasha, having grown up in the U.S., longs for the typical American nuclear family she sees around her, where the dad comes home for dinner every night and takes her to the park on the weekends. But in Asia, the patriarch is more occupied with working hard in order to provide a good life for their family financially, often at the expense of quality family life.

It’s easy for Sasha to resent her father for it, but at least she benefitted from her father’s wealth. When she goes to China, she discovers that this family dynamic isn’t unique to just her family, but that all the factory workers also have to sacrifice their families in order to support them. Except unlike their family, they are barely making ends meet.

Go Back To China BTS
Behind the scenes look at the production in a toy factory in China. Source: Instagram

I think it’s important to present both sides and show the parallels, so that Sasha and the audience will have more empathy towards this very typical Asian family dynamic.  

Q: What is one thing you want audiences to learn from watching your film Go Back To China?

A: One thing I would like for audiences to take away from watching the film is to get a sense of the human cost of things that are made in China. To me, the biggest sacrifice migrant factory workers in China face are not the low pay or terrible conditions that often get the spotlight in western media, but it’s having to leave their children behind for years on end in order to go and make a living to support them.

Families in China, and all around the world really, are all driven by the basic desire to provide a good life for their family. This is true of the factory owner on top as well as the workers on the bottom. Once we understand this drive, hopefully as the offsprings, we would have more empathy for our families, no matter how imperfect they are.

Q: What was it like working with Anna Akana, who’s obviously a very prolific and driven person working in both Youtube and the entertainment industry?

A: Anna is probably the hardest working actor I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. She is truly a self-made one-woman empire. While we were in China, she would constantly be working on her other projects in between takes, whether it’s pre-production on her stop motion animation short or approving post on her Youtube videos.

Anna Akana receiving her Best Actor Award at The 8th Annual Streamy Awards. Source: PinkNews

But she was also the consummate professional while on set. She brought so much energy and humanity to the character of Sasha, which could have been very one-note, if in the hands of a lesser actress. Yet, she was also very receptive to notes and always willing to try something new in order to give you different options in editing.

Q: How different was it filming in America as opposed to China?

A: There were quite a few differences. In LA, it’s easier to find crew who are willing to work on indie rates or for the love of the project. In China, it’s a bit harder because there’s not as much of an indie film scene over there.

But in China, the locations and catering are all super cheap. To put things in perspective, it cost more to feed our cast and crew for the 5 days we shot in LA than it did feeding everyone for the 15 days we shot in China.

Go Back To China Production Crew
Production crew at work. Source: Instagram

Q: Was it challenging to balance all the different languages on set or was everyone on the same page with a common language?

A: I can speak Chinese, so it wasn’t too hard for me. But it was somewhat challenging for the department heads that I brought over from LA. My DP, in particular, is from the U.S. and he had to be in charge of a huge department made up of mostly local crew members. In addition to the language barrier, there is also a cultural barrier. But at the end of the day, everyone spoke the language of film.

Q: We’ve gotten a lot of films about asian representation recently set in countries like Singapore and China. Is there a country or culture that you would love to see next?

A: I have now made two films in Asia. My first one was shot in Hong Kong and my second one in China. I feel like I need to complete my Asia trilogy, and personally, I would love to make a film in Taiwan, where I was born.

Q: Lastly, do you have any plans for a future project?

A: I just very recently had twins so I’m focused on being a mom right now. But I do have a story about motherhood that’s been percolating in my head. I just need to find the time in between feedings to actually write it!

On the producing front, I recently helped Lynn Chen produce her directorial debut I Will Make You Mine, which is currently in post. We hope to be doing the festival circuit with that film next year.

Go Back To China is now making its debut in various American film festivals. I highly recommend this film.

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