Back in 2004, Asian-American dudes were spotlighted in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. It should not have taken almost 20 years for Asian-American women to get their own raunchy, horny, outrageous sex comedy. However, now that Joy Ride opens this week, I’m happy to report that it fully warrants being compared to that classic.
The story revolves around Audrey Sullivan (Ashley Park) and Lolo Chen (Sherry Cola), who bonded in 1998 as the only Chinese girls in their small town outside Seattle. In the present day, Audrey is a successful corporate lawyer while Lolo is a struggling artist who lives on her property. Audrey has lied to her colleagues about her fluency in Mandarin, so when she’s sent to Beijing to close a deal with a wealthy client (Ronny Chieng, who seems to want to play all the rich Asian bastards), she takes Lolo along as her interpreter. The trip picks up a third wheel in Audrey’s ex-college roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu), who’s now a famous Chinese TV actress and who takes an instant dislike to Lolo. Rounding out the group is Vanessa a.k.a. Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), a fan of all things Korean. Speaking of which, I hear some of you protesting that the Korean-descended Park is playing a Chinese woman. Well, the story contains an explanation for that.
Making her assured directing debut is Adele Lim, the co-writer of Crazy Rich Asians. As you’d expect, much of the humor is specific to Asian-American culture, as when the client dares Audrey to do an alcohol shot with a century egg, which is too hard-core even for me. Adopted by a white family, Audrey is clueless enough that she thinks “Linsanity” refers to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lolo, who’s pushing her to find her biological parents, mutters, “So much to learn.” Later, we see Deadeye eating Ruffles potato chips with chopsticks, and I note that there are chopsticks you can buy just for that purpose. I am not making this up.
The comedy runs on its set pieces, like one in a train car where Audrey is so happy to find a fellow American (Meredith Hagner) that she doesn’t notice the incredibly obvious signs that the woman is a drug dealer. Later, our four heroines attempt to sneak past customs by disguising themselves as members of a K-pop girl group, and their resulting cover of Cardi B’s “WAP” gives Park and Hsu a chance to show off their musical chops. If you only know Park from Broadway or Emily in Paris, you need to see her rapping, “There’s some whores in this house, there’s some whores in this house.” (She does most of the dramatic heavy lifting here, too. She should be headlining more Hollywood projects.) The number is capped by a visual joke that’s far too good to spoil.
I do wish the movie had saved up one of those set pieces for the end. The writers rather run into trouble tying up everything after Audrey and Lolo have their inevitable falling out, despite a lovely performance by Daniel Dae Kim as a Korean man who gives Audrey the key to her past. Come to think of it, the writers don’t have much idea what to do with Deadeye, who goes from using female pronouns to gender-neutral ones in the middle of the story without any explanation. Wu (who’s non-binary in real life, since you’re wondering) has more of an idea what to do with the character, making Deadeye very funny in her stanning of Korean films and food and her refusal to be impressed with the sculpted bare chest of Kat’s fiancé (Desmond Chiam). The filmmakers should have given the character more than just a dance-off while all the other women were hooking up.
Well, being funny covers a multitude of sins. There’s another film out right now called Past Lives that’s also about trying to recover one’s past in the old country. It’s exquisitely well-made and so worth a look, and still, I’d rather watch Joy Ride any time. We’re in a moment when Hollywood movies are turning increasingly prudish. Not only does this movie push back against that, it gives a long-overdue busting to the stereotype of Asian women as exotic playthings for white men. These women are in control, however messily, of what happens in Joy Ride, and that makes it exhilarating.
Starring Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, and Sabrina Wu. Directed by Adele Lim. Written by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao. Rated R.