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‘Joy Ride’ Is the Hilarious, Heartfelt, and Horny Movie We Didn’t Know We Were Waiting For


Film still of Joy Ride
Lionsgate

For better and worse, you can trace the bare bones of progress in mainstream Asian-American cinema history with a handful of milestones. For instance, 1961 saw the release of Hollywood’s first-ever major studio film with a predominantly Asian cast, Flower Drum Song. A little over thirty years later, in 1993, the second film to receive that honour was The Joy Luck Club. Then, in 2018, twenty-five years after, Crazy Rich Asians followed suit.


Considering how much time had passed between Flower Drum Song and The Joy Luck Club, many Asian-American artists in the ‘90s believed the latter to be a turning point in terms of representation and diverse storytelling in Hollywood. However, as we all know, it was more of a fizzle than a bang, Asian-American stories and characters hovering in the periphery of 21st-century cinema, visible but not quite focal.


Indeed, it wouldn’t be until Crazy Rich Asians, flaws and all, that the tides would really shift. Of course, it helps that Jon M. Chu’s film became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the decade — which is no small feat when you consider that it was up against the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which was only gaining momentum at the time), that rom-coms weren’t the box office draws they used to be, and that streaming services were on the rise. Hollywood execs finally clued into the fact that Asian-American artists and audiences were starved for their stories to be funded and told.


Following Crazy Rich Asians, there has been a slew of prestige pictures since 2018 that only further pushed the door open for Asian recognition and opportunity in Hollywood: Parasite (winning an historic Oscar for Best Picture, no less), The Farewell, Minari, and, most recently, Everything Everywhere All at Once (to name a few). What’s more, we’ve seen the ripple effects applied to the small screen (i.e. Squid Game) and the goings-on behind the camera (i.e. Chloé Zhao winning the Oscar for Best Director in 2021).


Yes, Hollywood and mainstream North American cinema are experiencing a tidal wave of Asian-led projects and success. Films and TV shows of the last five years are giving audiences everything from piercing discussions of the immigrant experience to heartfelt explorations of time and memory to multiversal epics unraveling generational trauma, and garnering the highest praise from hallowed awards institutions while shattering box office records.


Simply put, we are living in a time when, for film fans, it truly is an honour just to be Asian — and then Joy Ride comes along and dares to become the movie we didn’t know we were waiting for.


Directed by Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim (making her directorial debut), and crisply written by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, Joy Ride follows four Asian-American friends who embark on the trip of a lifetime. When Audrey (Ashley Park) is tasked with travelling to China to land a major client for her law firm, she enlists her childhood best friend Lolo (Sherry Cola) to be her translator. Unbeknownst to Audrey, Lolo also invites her K-pop-obsessed cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) on the trip, and, similarly, Audrey makes plans to meet up with her college best friend-turned-Chinese-soap-star Kat (Stephanie Hsu). What begins as a high-stakes professional trip for Audrey quickly turns into a continental search for her birth mom, and while there’s initial friction between the four, everything they experience on this trip inevitably brings them closer together.


Hilarious, heartfelt, and horny, Joy Ride is the answer to many film fans’ prayers. It easily harkens back to the heyday of raunchy, R-rated ensemble comedies, which we haven’t seen much of in theatres since the 2000s and early-2010s, before streaming and superheroes took over. Indeed, it’s a relief to know that, this summer, between Indiana Jones looking for a lost artefact and Ethan Hunt running across the screen for the millionth time, Joy Ride will offer something we haven’t seen before, something that resonates and shocks in equal measure, something that does triple backflips along the line between grounded and outrageous, and sticks the landing. If last month’s No Hard Feelings was the set, then Joy Ride is the spike, signalling to movie-goers everywhere that there’s hope for good old-fashioned humour returning to theatres once again.


That being said, it must be understood that there’s nothing at all old-fashioned about Joy Ride or its approach to comedy. It may be playing with the same generic toolbox that someone like, say, Judd Apatow or Paul Feig may have had at their disposal, but, just as Audrey cozies up to the white, male partners of her firm early in the film, playing by their rules of hustling and ass-kissing, before breaking away on her own entirely, Lim is effectively carving out her own comedic space here. High or low, whether it’s Audrey’s pivotal moments of self-realisation or Lolo and Kat’s petty, pent-up slapping match at the club, there’s clear intention behind every moment, with Lim taking her characters to their most debaucherous and their most vulnerable.


The result is a film about four Asian-American friends who are as flawed and messy as they are smart and sensitive — and they are captivating to watch precisely because they’re fully fleshed-out characters (Asian ones, too, for that matter) that we haven’t seen before. It helps that each of the four leads brings their own brands of comedy to their roles. Wu can steal a scene from the background with just a glance. Lolo, the somewhat aimless, free-spirited friend, may not necessarily be a character we haven’t seen before, but Cola makes such revelatory choices in her scenes that she feels brand new. As Kat, Hsu proves once again why she’s a once-in-a-generation talent, deftly selling the absurd as sincere and finding the gag in the heartfelt.


But it’s Park’s performance as Audrey that seals the deal. Adopted by white parents, raised in the suburbs, and divorced from her own culture (whether by circumstance or choice), Audrey is representative of a lot of the Asian diaspora — for whom this movie is made, frankly — who contend every day with the always-shifting, multicultural worlds they have their feet in. In this way, we are her, navigating a culture that, from the outside, looks like something we should know about or feel connected to, but, deep down, might sometimes feel just as foreign. Park succeeds at the physical comedy, but it’s in Audrey’s most fragile moments that she really shines.


If you’re going in looking for something akin to Bridesmaids, you will be pleased by the plethora of comedy gold in Joy Ride. Between a K-pop-style interlude that ends in what could possibly be the most talked-about scene of the summer (if not the year) and your staple projectile vomiting fanfare, there’s certainly a lot to laugh at. What elevates the film beyond comparison, however, is how equally unafraid it is to turn inward and explore the more serious questions of belonging, identity, and family (chosen and otherwise).


It’s this pearl-diving expedition of the Asian diaspora experience that gives Joy Ride its beating heart. And like Flower Drum Song and The Joy Luck Club before it, Joy Ride’s instant icon status means that it will surely be referenced, taught, and screened endlessly in the decades to come.


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