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Joy Ride Director Adele Lim Made the Film For Her “Messy-Ass Friends”

Stephanie Hsu as Kat, Sherry Cola as Lolo, Ashley Park as Audrey, and Sabrina Wu as Deadeye in Joy R...
Ed Araquel/Lionsgate

When Adele Lim first started her career in Hollywood, she could never have imagined making a film centered on three Asian women and a nonbinary character. “I was an immigrant, so I just felt lucky to be working,” she tells W over a recent Zoom call. “And at that point, shows were not particularly diverse at all. There was maybe ‘Asian Best Friend #3’ or ‘Tech Support Guy.’” But after the runaway success of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, the box office-breaker she co-wrote, Lim found herself inspired to “live in [her] own voice” and “tell stories inspired by people who look like [her] and represent the cultures [she] grew up with.”

Now, she’s made her directorial debut with Joy Ride, a hard-R comedy following a quartet of Asian-Americans (Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, Ashley Park, and Sabrina Wu) as they wreak havoc on a group trip throughout China and Korea. But for every raunchy joke and comic set piece (cocaine-assisted one-night-stands; devil-printed vagina tattoos), Joy Ride also shows its more vulnerable heart, weaving together a story that knows the best way to make you laugh is to also make you cry.

You’ve been working in Hollywood as a writer for a couple decades now. When did you know you wanted to direct?

Since the second they asked, “Do you want to direct this?” As a television writer, you’re a producer on set and you control so much of the storytelling, so it was amazing to have that agency and control and be in the driver's seat for a feature as well. Especially for a project like this—it’s so specific and could go off the rails so easily. But if it was going to go off the rails, I wanted to be at the helm.

So you weren’t even thinking about directing it when you and your co-writers, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, were first writing the script?

No. When we were coming up with a list of directors, I had not been thinking of myself in that role. They came back to me the next day and said, “You know what? You should think about directing this if that’s something you’re open to.” And the first thing out of my mouth was a big fat yes. But I was very cognizant of the fact that this is a very specific project. We’ve never had an R-rated comedy with three women and a non-binary [person] at the center in this way.

How did you settle on this story? What is it about this raunchy style comedy that appealed to you in the first place?

It came from my friends and I just hanging out, as girlfriends do. We’d be shooting the shit over dinner and just telling each other the stupidest, most ridiculous, messiest stories from our lives. Sometimes, people have this idea about women—particularly Asian women—that we don’t “go there.” But let me tell you: we go there! Our moms and our aunts go there! Maybe not in public. But behind closed doors? I think women, across the board, from whatever demographic you are, [when you’re] among your people, your sisters, your friends, you are talking about these things in some way. Because if you don’t tell it, who will?

So my friends Teresa, Cherry, and I started thinking, “You know what? We’ve never seen this. We’ve spent our whole careers writing for other people. Let’s write this for us. Let’s just write this to make ourselves happy.” And that’s what we did. We just met every Thursday in my living room and came up with the story, throwing beats on a board. Again, it was all inspired by our messy-ass friends and stories that made us laugh.

Sabrina Wu, Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, and Stephanie Hsu in Joy Ride

Ed Araquel/Lionsgate

On the other hand, I think Joy Ride has a much bigger heart than some of its peers. These themes of isolation and identity feel just as integral to the story as the comic setpieces. How did you find that balance?

It was baked in from the beginning. Teresa and Cherry are hilarious comedy writers, but I’m a drama writer. So when we were telling all our stories—even the crazy, ridiculous ones—the ones that had a little bit of a vulnerable heart were the ones that stuck the longest.

Joy Ride is mostly about these bonds of friendship, but it also has to do with the four of them being Asian-American, and that has its own struggle. I’m an immigrant. I’m an Asian who grew up in Asia, and it wasn’t until I got to this country that I realized, Ooh, ‘Asian-American’ is a whole separate thing. Sometimes, you grow up feeling like you are a guest in someone’s house. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here or how much you call this your “home,” you’re still made to feel like you don’t quite belong—whether you’re an immigrant, a third-generation, or a transracial adoptee. These are things we felt we knew and could speak to, and they just went hand-in-hand with the comedy and the bigger aspects of our movie.

Last week, someone on Twitter took offense with the way Joy Ride “objectifies men” and “targets white people.” You were able to make light of it with a joke about getting that printed on a T-shirt, but I’m curious whether you anticipated these criticisms. I love that Joy Ride is willing to turn whiteness into a punchline, but were you ever worried about how conservative audiences might respond?

You can really get paralyzed worrying about how you’re going to be perceived, whether you’re going to give offense, or whether people are going to think you’re just too much of a fringe outsider. Trying to make yourself more palatable to the mainstream is just going to water your own voice down. It’s not going to help the larger society understand and appreciate how amazing, fantastic, vibrant, and colorful we all are.

Joy Ride really was that—it was a joyride being able to create something that made us and our friends laugh. And everybody who’s watched the movie hasn’t thought, “Oh, this is just a movie for Asians.” They’ve been able to relate to it, because at the end of the day, all our stories are universal. We just knew that if we made it funny and the heart was true, people who gave it a chance would find it and love it too.

Adele Lim at the Joy Ride premiere

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The “objectifies men” part especially got me, because Joy Ride presents Asian men in this decidedly sexy way, which isn’t something we typically see in media. Were you consciously trying to correct the way Asian men are depicted on screen?

100%. I wanted to do my bit in changing the way America sees Asian men. I grew up in Asia, [watching] Hong Kong movies with Chow Yun-fat. We were not lacking for hot, star-quality Asian men. It wasn’t until I got to this country that I realized how the West looks at Asian men, and I’m not standing for that. I’m a mother of a young Asian boy and I’m not going to have him grow up in a world that regards him as any less than anyone else. So that was my little wink and push to make sure that America sees my brothers for the hot gods that they are.

I obviously have to ask about Kat’s vagina tattoo, which is maybe the most hilarious sight-gag I’ve seen all year—especially because it’s so unexpected when it happens.

Having a vagina tat of the devil is about the craziest fucking thing you can do in a movie, but honestly, it comes from a place of character. We started from the character of Kat, somebody who is effusive and charming and successful in real life, but has this fake good-girl persona. We were thinking, What is a secret she could be hiding that could be a manifestation of this shame that she feels? It kind of went from there.

I remember being in a writers’ room [years ago] where somebody brought up the idea of pussy tats. They Googled it and my eyes were burned out of my head. Women get these, y’all! So we thought, “Let’s put one on Kat.” The thing about Joy Ride is that you’re wondering, Do you go there? Do you not? Well, this is the movie that goes there.

Let me tell you. When I was a little girl, thinking, Ooh, one day I’ll get to work in Hollywood, this was not part of my vision for myself. But I’m so glad it is. Going to a tent and looking at some lovely body-double’s private parts inches away from my face with a decal of the devil on it? Yes.

Ed Araquel/Lionsgate

As a director, comedy can be so hard to nail because you have to capture the spirit of punchlines—not just the dialogue itself. Coming from a drama-writing background, what was the hardest thing you had to adjust to?

Negotiating the balance between the heart and the humor. You have all these insanely funny comedy writers, and they just want to plaster everything with the funniest jokes. But as a director, you’re mindful that you’re not putting together a sketch show. You’re telling a story. You want people to fall in love with these characters. For that to happen, you want to make sure the audience is on the journey with them and not just cracking up at the jokes.

Speaking of characters, you’ve talked about the dilemma of Asian actors: because there aren’t many opportunities for them to be “stars,” it’s hard to find someone that a studio thinks can “carry” a film. How did you feel once you had assembled your central quartet?

You’re right. We don’t have as many bites at the apple to practice “being a star.” But when our cast got together for the table-read and performed together for the first time, it was like waking up on Christmas morning. It was undeniable. We had a bunch of comedy writers—people who come from old-school Hollywood comedy, these white guy Jewish writers—and they were all laughing their asses off. You could feel the star-power. So despite not having those opportunities, they were ready.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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