THE STORY – When Audrey’s business trip to Asia goes sideways, she enlists the help of Lolo, her childhood best friend, Kat, a college friend, and Deadeye, Lolo’s eccentric cousin. Their epic, no-holds-barred experience becomes a journey of bonding, friendship, belonging and wild debauchery that reveals the universal truth of what it means to know and love who you are.
THE CAST – Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu & Sabrina Wu
THE TEAM – Adele Lim (Director), Cherry Chevapravatdumrong & Teresa Hsiao (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) have been best friends since their parents met at the playground when they were young. As the only two Asian children in their grade – Lolo’s parents emigrated to the US a while back, and Audrey was adopted from China by white parents – they stuck together through thick and thin. Now, Audrey is a high-powered lawyer desperately trying to prove to the white men at her firm that she’s worthy of making partner, and Lolo is an artist trying to find a place to show and sell her art while living in Audrey’s backyard. When an opportunity arises to seal an important business deal in China, Audrey jumps at the chance, bringing Lolo along to help her with translation. Lolo brings along her cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), who’s hoping to meet up with some of her online K-Pop friends, and once there, the trio hooks up with Audrey’s college roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu), currently the star of a popular period soap opera. When her business meeting doesn’t go as planned, Audrey and her friends find themselves on an adventure throughout Asia to find Audrey’s birth mother. Hijinks, naturally, ensue as our heroines learn the true meaning of friendship and family.
On the surface, “Joy Ride” looks like any number of other attempts to recreate the success of “The Hangover” – a group of four connected people with easily differentiated personalities on a wacky adventure full of opportunities for raunchy, gross-out humor. The big difference this time is that the leads are Asian-American women, and the film is focused on Asian-American identity and how it can shape a person. The screenplay by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsaio brilliantly exploits the differences between the main characters to explore different aspects of Asian-American identity: Audrey embodies the code-switching that most minorities become adept at to navigate an easy path through life; Lolo represents the outspoken women who go against the submissive, deferential attitude expected of them, a stereotype that Kat is pigeon-holed into as a star, leaving her sexually frustrated and hiding from her past; and Deadeye is the awkward social outcast who connects to Asian culture from afar, over the internet. These women may not all like each other at first – Kat and Lolo hate each other for each having a legitimate claim to being Audrey’s best friend, Deadeye’s complete lack of vanity and utter fearlessness confuses and annoys Audrey – but they have more in common than they think, and one of the film’s biggest strengths is its portrayal of friendship as something that happens naturally over shared experiences that bring our similarities to light. These relationships build and strengthen gradually throughout the film without requiring grand gestures or contrivances. This leads to a bond between these women that is so palpable that you’re left wanting a sequel immediately, if only to spend more time with them.
The fact that the cast is so charismatic and charming also helps in this regard. Cola and Hsu have perfect frenemy chemistry, with Cola’s laidback outspokenness a great foil to Hsu’s forced graciousness. Their onscreen personas are different, but both actresses modulate their energy so that they match each other, making the characters’ eventual connection all the sweeter. Deadeye’s unpredictability is, in many ways, the film’s secret weapon. Wu is a marvel in their feature film debut, effortlessly making a believable person out of the screenplay’s collection of tics and “random” surprises. “Joy Ride” is very much Audrey’s film, though, and Park seamlessly brings together the film’s humor and heart in a performance of genuine star quality. Audrey can be a tightly wound, high-maintenance pain. Still, Park clarifies her motivations and desires and makes plain the insecurities that lead her to act as she does, engendering audience empathy. When Audrey’s quest to find her birth mother ramps up in the film’s last act, Park shoulders the film’s emotional weight with grace, ensuring that the film is as genuinely heartfelt as it is gut-busting hilarious.
Make no mistake, as much as “Joy Ride” is a massive step forward for Asian-American representation, and as seriously as it deals with its themes, it is also incredibly funny. Each of the four leading actors has proven their comedy bona fides before this, and their performances here are further proof of their talents. The witty barbs that get traded back and forth have a real bite to them, and the visual gags thrive off the performers’ commitment: Park gets a fantastic gross-out moment involving a “thousand-year-egg” shot, and Hsu gets a howler of a reveal following the group’s hilariously on-point K-Pop girl group rendition of “WAP.” The film’s comedic piece de resistance, though, is a mid-film sex scene that cuts between each of our four leads having the night of their lives after hitching a ride with a basketball team following getting kicked off a train under the suspicion of being drug smugglers. The wildly hilarious setups are thankfully funny not only because of what is happening within them but because of how they’re staged (cleverly hiding certain things to avoid an NC-17 rating) and edited together (to maximize the dissonance between them). The overall comic effect is one of wild abandon, throwing caution to the wind and allowing these characters to be as horny and unhinged as people are in real life. It’s refreshing not just to see these kinds of characters get this kind of cinematic celebration but to see a film that revels so much in its honesty about sex, humor, and where they intersect.
As great as the cast is, the central driving force here is unquestionably director/producer/co-creator Adele Lim, who ensures everything fits together just right. Many films have tried to mix raunchy humor and tender emotion before “Joy Ride,” but few have achieved such a perfect balance as Lim has done here. With her steady hand guiding things, the film even has a strong visual signature, something most modern-day comedies eschew in favor of throwing as many ad-libbed jokes as possible at the audience. In her directorial debut, Lim (the acclaimed screenwriter of “Crazy Rich Asians“) proves that you can have it all: Humor, heart, and strong craft. Her personal connection to the story (the script was born out of conversations between Lim, Hsaio, and Chevapravatdumrong, where they would vent and laugh about their lives and friends) lends the film a passion that helps its very specific story feel universal. In finding the humor of being an Asian-American woman, Lim, and her cast and crew have created something that anyone can see and relate to, thus making the world a better – and more uproariously funny – place.