Chen plays Carol Li in Emily Ting's 2019 film

Emily Ting’s film Go Back To China was an eye opener into the world of what it means to be rich in China and posed questions on how “wealthy” is “wealthy”? and how does the drive to remain wealthy in China impact on the family unit.

The film which stars Anna Akana and Lynn Chen recently featured at this years San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase, engaging audiences into understanding this complex world of being part of a rich Chinese family.

I had the opportunity to interview actress Lynn Chen at this year’s festival about her character ‘Carol Li’ in the film and explore the themes and complexities which this film presented. But before that, here is (without any spoilers), the main premise of what Go Back To China is all about:

The semi-autobiographical film follows spoiled rich girl Sasha Li (Anna Akana), who after blowing through most of her trust fund, is forced by her father Teddy (Richard Ng) to go back to China and work for the family toy business.

What begins simply as a way to regain financial support soon develops into a life altering journey of self discovery, as Sasha discovers her passion for toy designing and learns to reconnect with her estranged family. A bittersweet portrait of a fractured family, the film also offers an honest look at the human cost of things that are made in China.

9th Annual SDAFF Spring Showcase. Photo by Jose Bucud/Pacific Arts Movement

Lynn Chen plays Carol Li, the daughter of Teddy’s first wife and half sister to Sasha Li. The distant, yet familiar bond between the two sisters is tested when a series of business disagreements and mishaps in the toy factory occur.

There is love, resentment and jealousy between the sisters in terms of them fighting for their father’s love, fulfilling the duties of being filial daughters and experiencing the perils of wanting to be free from the family business and doing away with family responsibilities.

Chen: “Carol Li is Sasha’s half sister who has been living in Shenzhen, China for a decade running the family business with her dad. So when Sasha returns to China after blowing half of her trust fund, it is not only her reuniting with her father but also a way to test the bond between sisters.”

“Carol is a woman with conviction and compliant when it comes to family as she prides in her familial duty to be a good daughter and to fulfill what all parents expect from a good Chinese daughter.”

“When Sasha and Carol reunite, the relationship isn’t that strong as they have really only met a few times. There is some hostility because even though they share the same father, they all had different mothers, and Carol is essentially the first daughter from the first wife, whilst Sasha mother was one of her father’s many mistresses.”

“For Carol this means that the family she knew as a young child was torn apart, and the challenge in coming together with Sasha again is to try and get past these feelings of resentment and jealousy and to remember that blood is thicker than water and so bonding is important.”

Image via San Diego Asian Film Festival

The film also touches on the idea of what it means to be a rich Chinese family and how much wealth is really enough to maintain a “positive” public image in China. Whilst the Lis are considered as rich, they are far from being a club member of the “ultra rich” in China. After all, the Lis operate a toy factory somewhere in Shenzhen living with the prospect that their factory could close at anytime if a simple mishap or a dip in the global toy demand economy occurs.

In addition, there are huge gaps between the rich and poor in China, and I personally appreciated that the film made this a major focus to highlight. Both Carol and Sasha struggle with this concept in the film. To cope, they live their life as facades to maintain their image and to tell themselves that they belong to a successful family. Carol has essentially accepted the inequalities of wealth in China, but for Sasha this becomes a major waking moment for her.

Chen: “The Lis are considered wealthy but in Sasha’s eye it is not enough as she hides what her family does to earn that wealth. She thinks a toy factory is a tacky business and not the type of rich she wants to be a part of – she essentially sees it as a bottom wrung thing. It is only when she goes to China and sees how all the factory workers live and how hard they work does she get a dose of reality in terms of seeing class differences, struggles and her responsibility as a human being witnessing this etc.”

“For my character Carol, I feel she may have accepted this as part of running a business and being successful, but whether she has woken up is another question. Carol sees it like her father, that providing a job is a way to breakthrough these inequalities, where Sasha sees it differently.”

Go Back To China was definitely a brilliant made film and one which will peak the interest of audiences watching it. When the discussion around cultural representation and visibility in Hollywood come up, it is authentic films like this one which will contribute to the movement for change. This film is essentially a cross cultural development, combining both the Chinese American and the Chinese experience, telling a story which can resonate with Chinese all over the diaspora.

Chen: “For me, representation and visibility means telling authentic stories, and I hope that Go Back To China will be seen as one of these stories. Personally, I feel representation and visibility in Hollywood has shifted for a select few and this shift is really dependent on who and what is currently trendy.”

“With that said, those who are or have experienced this shift have really taken it upon themselves to be leaders and acknowledge that this is still a working issue within the community, and one which is political.”

“For me, and I am sure for all the others like me who are experiencing this shift we can contribute by using it to uplift and mobilize this movement. But we can’t be waiting hand and foot on Hollywood or other parts of Western media to open these opportunities up for us only – it is about how we create our own opportunities and how these opportunities can open up new talents among the Asian diaspora community.”

“So let’s keep doing this, and keep creating our own content, showing our authentic voices in story telling in order to mobilize this movement for change.”

To end, Go Back To China was a brilliant made film, and both Anna Akana and Lynn Chen shined in their characters as Sasha and Carol Li. Their sisterly relationship bought the film together and brought depth and meaning to what it means to be a part of a rich, but not “ultra rich” Chinese family.