Festivals & Events
November 13, 2019
#NewAmericanPerspectives: 5 Questions for GO BACK TO CHINA director, Emily Ting
The Vilcek Foundation has partnered with the Hawai’i International Film Festival to re-launch the “New American Perspectives” program. The program is the product of a partnership between the Vilcek Foundation and HIFF, focused on highlighting the contributions of foreign-born filmmakers and creative directors to cinema and multimedia arts in the United States.
The 2019 New American Perspectives program features the films and multimedia projects of five talented women artists: Saudi Arabian-born director Haifaa Al Mansour and her film, THE PERFECT CANDIDATE, Filipino-born Isabel Sandoval and her film, LINGUA FRANCA, Taiwanese-born Emily Ting and her film, GO BACK TO CHINA; Japanese-born HIKARI and her film, 37 SECONDS, and Chinese-born Jenny Dorsey and her virtual- and augmented-reality presentation, ASIAN IN AMERICA. While each of the films and presentations are unique in its style and approach, they are united thematically – addressing stories about identity, self-actualization, and personal agency the context of community, family, and society.
Emily Ting wrote, directed, and produced the film, GO BACK TO CHINA. The film, starring Anna Akana, Lynn Chen, and Richard Ng, debuted to sold-out theatres in New York this past summer in the week following President Trump’s remarks that a few “progressive congresswomen should "go back" to the places they “originally came from.”
The Vilcek Foundation invited Emily to discuss how her experiences as an immigrant have shaped her career and her artistic processes through a series of 5 questions.
How have your experiences as an immigrant shaped your work as an artist and filmmaker?
If I hadn’t immigrated to the United States, I’m not sure if I would’ve ever become a filmmaker. I have always loved going to the movies – even as a young child growing up in Taiwan – but it wasn’t until I became an American teenager that I discovered my voice as an artist and that film was the way I wanted to share my stories. I think that being an immigrant also naturally makes you more empathetic. When you don’t have the luxury of being part of the majority, you have no choice but to empathize with a different perspective. I think that is a very important skill to have as a director, to finding the nuance in every situation and character and being able to see things from other people’s perspective.
When did you move to the United States? What motivated and inspired you and your family to move to the United States?
I moved to the United States from Taiwan with my mom when I was 10 years old. My parents had divorced a few years prior, and at that time in Taiwan, custody of children in divorce cases automatically went to the father. My mother knew that the only way she could regain custody of her children was by providing a future for us in America. My mother and I were separated for two years while she restarted her life in San Francisco and pursued permanent residency in the United States: those were the toughest years of my childhood. My father agreed to let me go when my mother obtained her green card. It wasn’t so much the “American dream” that I was pursuing, but the opportunity to be reunited with my mom.
Both GO BACK TO CHINA, and your previous feature, ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG focus on protagonists who immigrated to and grew up in the United States but move abroad as young adults. How were these films informed by your experiences?
I moved to Hong Kong in my early 20s and lived there until the eve of my 30th birthday. The years I spent in Asia were probably the most formative years of my adult life. They greatly changed the trajectory of my life and shaped who I am today – when it came time for me to direct my own films, those were the stories that I wanted to tell. Both of my films are semi-autobiographical. In my childhood, I was an Asian immigrant in America, and as an adult, I became an American ‘expat’ in Asia: that dichotomy became the running theme not only in my life, but in my films.
Your film's title provokes a visceral reaction for many viewers. What was your inspiration for choosing this title, and have you been surprised by people’s reactions? How have different audiences responded to the title?
I had no idea what the title of the film was going to be when I first started writing the script. I was playing around with some more mundane titles, like The Family Business. I finished the first draft in January 2017 – mere months after the 2016 Presidential election in the United States. The scene of Sasha being told to go back to China by the racist woman on the street was always in the early drafts. With everything going on in the country at that time, I thought, could I actually make “Go Back to China” the title of the film, as opposed to just a scene? I began using it as a working title. Everyone I sent the script to in the early days loved the title and told me it made them want to read the script right away: the title stuck, even though it’s a little bit of a fake out, since the film is not really a commentary on race relations in the United States, but is literally about a girl who goes back to China.
The most surprising reaction to the title is that while it’s been universally embraced by the American audience, the title has become problematic for Chinese and Hong Kong distributors. While the title started out as more of a commentary on American racism, the phrase has come to reflect the racial tensions in Hong Kong right now. In another instance of art imitating life, my little sister – who was born in Hong Kong, but has a mainland Chinese mom – recently transferred schools to Shenzhen because she was bullied and told to “go back to China.”
If you could provide any message to young and aspiring filmmakers and artists who are immigrants, what would it be?
Your experiences as an immigrant are more of an asset than a hindrance in getting your stories told. More than ever before, audiences are embracing diverse stories told by diverse filmmakers, and the gatekeepers in Hollywood are taking notice. If you’re just starting out and trying to break into the industry, you may think that you have to write something ‘commercial’ or sellable in order to get noticed – but I think it’s more important for you to write something really authentic and true to your voice and experience. Tell the story that only you and no one else can tell.
GO BACK TO CHINA has its Hawai’i debut at HIFF on Saturday, November 16 at 6:45 pm at the Regal Dole Cannery Theatre. An encore presentation of the film will be held on Sunday, November 17, at 4:30 pm.
Emily and all of the artists featured as part of the New American Perspectives program will speak as part of a panel, HIFF TALKS: NEW AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, on Saturday, November 16, at 1:00 pm at the IHeartRadio Music Hall. The discussion is free and open to the public and to all HIFF attendees.