Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion got back to Joy Ride director Adele Lim faster than she thought possible: Yes, she had permission to include their song “WAP” in her directorial debut. To set the scene: The summer comedy’s four main characters are stuck in China, trying to get to South Korea despite their stolen passports. They need a big, shiny distraction. So naturally, they disguise themselves as the brand-new (fictional) K-pop group Brownie Tuesday and launch into a yassified version of the modern rap classic, widely considered one of the most sexually explicit songs of our era.
It’s a larger-than-life scene that ends in a flash of female frontal nudity, a rarity in film but especially in the context of the genre. “Dicks have always been comedy somehow,” says the film’s co-writer, Teresa Hsiao. “Jason Segel whips it out in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and you laugh. But women’s anatomy has always been sexualized. And we can take that back too. This can also be funny. Our parts are not always just there to be sexy.”
“WAP” is a microcosm of the themes of the movie, which premiered to raves at SXSW in March and hits theaters July 7: It rolls a message of female empowerment and owning one’s sexuality into something else. For the song, that something is rap lyrics and splashy visuals. For the movie, it’s messy comedy and raw raunch.
Joy Ride is deliciously filthy, but buried beneath the dirty jokes is a genuine story of friendship, identity, and belonging. The movie follows Audrey (Emily in Paris’ Ashley Park, playing “the responsible one”) back to her motherland, China, on a business trip to close a critical deal. Her childhood friend Lolo (Good Trouble’s Sherry Cola, as “the mouthy one”), tags along to translate. Lolo’s cousin Deadeye (stand-up comic Sabrina Wu, playing “the chaotic one”) joins in to meet up with their online K-pop friends. And Audrey’s college friend, soap opera star Kat (Everything Everywhere All At Once breakout Stephanie Hsu, as “the sorta famous one”), loves a grand adventure.
“The medium is the message,” says Lim, who also co-wrote Crazy Rich Asians and Raya and the Last Dragon. “We don’t have to talk about cultural relevance and representation and Asian female sexuality, we just have the faces of our leads onscreen, and that does a lot.”
This summer, between Joy Ride, the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle No Hard Feelings, and Bottoms, from Shiva Baby duo Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott, the bawdy flavor of the 2010s is back. But this time, it has shifted its weight toward authenticity. “What comedy does is you can present something that is actually stealthily profound and moving and heartbreaking without leading with it,” Lim says. “And sometimes that’s just more effective in reaching people when they least expect it.”
Joy Ride is a cleverly disguised search for belonging: culturally, romantically, within friendships. Audrey was adopted by a white couple as a baby, and she isn’t particularly connected to her heritage. “If you do not know where you come from,” asks her Chinese business partner, played by Ronny Chieng, “how do you know who you are?” And so begins an epic quest to find Audrey’s birth mom, ostensibly to appease the business partner and close the deal but, unsurprisingly, with the potential for deeper revelations. Hijinks ensue: the “WAP” production, a run-in with an American drug dealer, a sex scene sequence that results in multiple injuries.
Adele, Hsiao, and Hsiao’s co-writer Cherry Chevapravatdumrong drew from comedic ensemble influences like The Hangover, Bridesmaids, and Girls Trip. Those films had “the tone and the joyful abandon that we wanted in our movie that was just unapologetic,” Lim says. “We’re not going to water things down, we’re just going to lean hard into what we find funny, because that’s going to be the magic stickiness to it.”
Hsiao and Chevapravatdumrong met around 2012, when they were both working on Family Guy. Since then, they’ve also worked together on Hsiao’s Comedy Central show, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. In conversation, they crack deadpan jokes, commit to bits, and egg each other on. Both of them, like Audrey and Lolo, grew up in towns that were predominantly white. Like Audrey and Lolo too, there was only one other Asian girl in Hsiao’s hometown, and they became fast friends.
In the coming years, the co-writers met Lim and began hanging out at her house on Thursday nights. Around 2018, they started tossing out plot points on cheap CVS whiteboards. No idea—not even a stunt sequence involving a water buffalo crossing a river—was too wild. (Though in the case of the water buffalo, some proved too expensive.) They were writing a movie for fun, the kind they would have wanted to watch growing up.
Lim grew up in Malaysia, watching Stephen Chow comedies and Hong Kong action movies. The “inappropriate messiness” of Joy Ride was there, she says. But when she got to the U.S., she realized there was a whole different perception of Asians. Asian women in particular were fetishized onscreen: sexy assassin, femme fatale, human trafficking victim.
Joy Ride eschews the male gaze: its jokes are from female and non-binary points of view. “All of it is through a lens of our characters taking the power into their own hands and making the choices,” Chevapravatdumrong says, “as opposed to having the choices be made for them.” While the sex scene sequence is chaotic and side-splitting onscreen, on set it was taken seriously, and each actor worked with an intimacy coordinator.
“There’s a lot of storytelling that really puts women’s sexuality in a box: from Disney princess narratives or even K-dramas where the woman is about denying your sexuality and having a guy ease it out of you or take it by force,” Lim says. “And the solution to that is to have a space for us to discover our own sexuality completely separate of the dominant male point of view.” Or, frankly—and perhaps this is, above all else, the point—“giving a sh-t about their point of view.”
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