A written response by Xuanlin Tham
The model minority myth paints a story in rather broad strokes. It’s a term of phrase used to summate the idea that ethnic minorities, particularly Asian Americans, face no barriers to upwards social mobility due to an inherent propensity for hard work, assimilative obedience, and general ‘good behaviour’ that sets them apart from other ethnic groups.
It’s less helpful to understand this as a homogenising and monolithic phenomenon, and more interesting to look at the ways these narratives – though clunky – have been internalised, reproduced in our cultural touchstones, our upbringings. Interesting, too, is the way the notions perpetuated by the model minority myth intersect with gender – and what expectations are then generated for Asian American or diasporic East Asian women, who are not only expected to be demure, but excellent, too.
On the terrain of representation, then, perhaps the greatest intervention we can make is to nourish a plurality of narratives: to populate our stories with images of Asian characters that engage with our two-dimensional construction, and the ways structural racism attempts to pit us against other ethnic minorities. Sometimes, these narratives should be allowed to be loud, vulgar: to encroach on the territory of comedy and bad taste previously deemed acceptable only to the white, male majority. When you’re fighting back against a politics of respectability, sometimes nasty is the way to go.
Adele Lim’s Joy Ride is one such nasty intervention. Audrey, an Asian American adoptee (Ashley Park) is a lawyer who embarks on a work trip to China – she has it on good word that if she can close this specific deal with a Chinese client, the promotion she’s dreamt of will be hers. She doesn’t speak Mandarin, though, so her childhood best friend, the irreverent, sexually liberated ‘struggling artist’ Lolo (Sherry Cola), tags along to be her translator. But soon enough, the trip transforms into a search for Audrey’s birth mother, and they’ve picked up two stragglers on the way: the socially awkward Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), and famous soap opera actress Kat (the Oscar-nominated Stephanie Hsu, of Everything Everywhere All At Once). It’s a wild, continent-hopping journey: stuffed to the bumholes (literally) with drugs, a highlight is its Girls Trip-esque sex montage that sees a very creative use of a basketball and a back massager. Where the long history of the movies – and fiction in general – has seen Asian women reduced to sex objects, fetishised and dehumanised, it is always refreshing to witness stories where their sexual agency is celebrated, and where they call the shots.
Yet some of Joy Ride’s most interesting aspects lie behind its neon-flashing, joke-a-mile-a-minute veneer: an unexpected twist that unravels the trip’s purpose near the film’s end challenges our preconceptions of what an ‘adoptee-returns-to-the-homeland’ story looks like. Other touches trouble the narrative in fascinating ways – an allusion to Audrey’s ‘internalised racism’ that sees her either consciously or subconsciously never date Asian men is among the film’s most subtle yet cutting flourishes. It’s all packaged in a rowdy, rude jack-in-a-box, but Joy Ride has heart – and the canon of the debauched girls’ trip deserves its foul-mouthed Asian protagonists, too. Not model minorities: not just A+ grades, and doctors, and lawyers; but badly-behaved, deranged women. Because if white men get away with it, why should the rest of us sit out of the fun?