Joy Ride was not originally titled Joy Ride. "Our working title, the one we slapped on the cover page of our script, was Joy F**k Club," director Adele Lim says of the "loving homage" to 1993's groundbreaking Joy Luck Club. Getting an expletive-laden movie title past the MPAA, however, remains a nonstarter. And so "began the long, long process of trying to find exactly the right title that would capture the spirit of this movie."
Before it was Joy Ride, and even before it was Joy F**k Club, the comedy started simply as a thought experiment between Lim and her longtime friends, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao. The latter two met in the Family Guy writers' room ("We were the only two women and only two Asian people on the staff at the time"). And then, through mutual friends, they met Lim, who is best known for co-writing Crazy Rich Asians and Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon. "We don't hang out with drama writers normally," Hsiao deadpans.
"We've been friends for years and years and our favorite thing to do is make each other crack up with disgusting stories either inspired by our lives or the lives of our messy friends," Lim tells A.frame. "We got to the point of thinking, 'You know what? We're all professional writers. We should put all of this into a movie and write the kind of movie we wish we had growing up.'"
Inspired by their love of comedies like Girls Trip, Bridesmaids, and The Hangover, the women began using their regular hangouts to outline a hard R comedy of their own: Four unlikely friends on a debauched trip to China, full of sex, drugs, and K-pop. Chevapravatdumrong and Hsiao spent nights and weekends writing it on spec. "Really, we were doing this thing for ourselves," says Hsiao. And then, the movie got greenlit. "We never thought that would happen."
In Joy Ride, Audrey and Lolo first meet as kids on the playground and instantly bond over being the only Asian girls in their predominantly-white suburb. As adults, the two couldn't be more different — Audrey (Ashley Park) is an overachieving lawyer, Lolo (Sherry Cola) is a struggling "artist" — yet they remain besties. When Audrey is sent to Beijing on an important business trip, Lolo tags along as her translator — as do Audrey's college roommate-turned-famous actress Kat (Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu) and Lolo's oddball cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu).
Along the way, the quartet unwittingly becomes a group of drug mules, has sex with an entire basketball team, and performs Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP" as a K-pop group called Brownie Tuesday — the latter climaxing in a full-frontal scene that will surely shock a few moviegoers. Because, if you're going to make the first R-rated studio comedy to star Asian and nonbinary actors, why not go big?
As Lim puts it, "There's no such thing as too far."
"We're equally disgusting," Chevapravatdumrong says for her part. She adds reassuringly, "We did not offend each other at any point during the entire writing and production of this movie."
Amidst the summer of the R-rated comedy — with No Hard Feelings and The Blackening now in theaters and Bottoms and Strays coming soon — there has been plenty of debate over the state of the big studio comedy. In 2023, is it really that hard to make a comedy without offending?
"We came at it very much from the perspective of we want to make a movie that is funny, but that is not ever punching down at anyone. That is really uplifting in a way, showing people that you haven't seen before, making jokes and not being the butt of the joke. Of course, there are going to be things that are not going to be for everyone, but I don't think there's anything that is blatantly offensive," says Hsiao. "I also think it's, like, we are the ones making the joke. We're three Asian female filmmakers coming out here, and we're doing this."
As raunchy as Joy Ride can get, the film is also about searching for identity. Adopted by white parents (played by David Denman and Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo) as a baby, Audrey hopes to track down her birth mother on her trip to China. Lolo, Kat, and Deadeye all contend with their own identity crises as they grapple with their unique experiences of what it means to be Asian American. The biggest shock of Joy Ride is that it might just make viewers shed a tear or two.
"At the end of the day, there is a heartfelt journey that the characters go through, and we wanted to make sure that the comedy and the drama were really supporting each other," Lim says. "There are plenty of insane moments, but there's no insane moment in the movie where you felt like, 'Oh, this is just us trying to gross out the audience gratuitously.'"
As if sharing in testimony, Chevapravatdumrong shares, "Ashley's parents saw it at South by [Southwest], and her mom refers to the threesome scene as 'the wrestling scene.' Because she's not trying to think her daughter was on-screen doing any of that stuff."
"I remember Ashley's mom coming up to me before she had seen the movie, and she was like, 'Is there any way to make it PG-13?' And I was like, 'Absolutely not,'" Hsiao chimes in. "And I remember her coming up to me after she had seen it and just being like, 'I forgive you.' And I was like, 'I'll take it!'"
From the beginning, Lim knew that it would be important to find the right director for Joy Ride; she just never thought it would be her. "I never really thought of myself as a director," she admits. But when the script landed at Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's Point Grey Pictures, they asked Lim if she was interested in directing the movie. "And the first thing out of my mouth was, 'Yes. Absolutely the f**k, yes.'"
"I didn't know I wanted to direct features prior to then probably," Lim says. "But I knew that we had a very special, very specific movie and story we wanted to tell. And if one of us didn't do it, then somebody else would tell our story and it wouldn't feel the same."
Lim's crew comprised of predominantly Asian department heads, which she says wasn't purely for the representation but for the "cultural specificity" that each could bring to their work. Paul Yee was her cinematographer, Michael Norman Wong was her production designer, Beverley Huynh was her costume designer, and Nena Erb was Lim's editor, among others. Chevapravatdumrong and Hsiao also served as producers and were on set the entire time.
"Especially as a woman of color operating in this field, it's very easy to feel that you're not as qualified or as experienced. But if it is your story that you are telling, you are the best person for it," reflects the director. "There are people there to help you, to support you. I couldn't have done what I did without the allyship and support of the studio and our production company, Point Grey, and the mentorship of Jon Chu, who directed Crazy Rich Asians. But at the end of the day, it's your movie. It's your story that you have to tell."
The movie still needed a title, though.
"When the title Joy Ride came up, that felt just so naturally right — not just in describing what the movie is and feels like, but it's how the entire process went: The process of coming up with the idea, writing it, of finding our amazing cast, shooting the movie, sharing the movie with our audiences," Lim says. "It just felt like a joyful journey. So, Joy Ride just felt like the perfect fit."