It’s rare—almost unheard of, in fact—for a Hollywood comedy to be fronted entirely by Asian women and non-binary people. Yet, that’s exactly what Joy Ride is. Released mid-2023, the film follows the misadventures of four Asian-American friends (played by Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu and Sabrina Wu) across China. It is riotous, hilarious and unabashedly debauched. In short, it is nothing like the meek stereotype that the Western media has historically perpetuated Asian culture to be.
The woman behind it is Malaysian screenwriter and director Adele Lim. While Joy Ride serves as her directorial debut, Lim has long made a name for herself in Hollywood. She was the co-writer of Crazy Rich Asians and Raya and the Last Dragon—both of which made significant strides for Asian representation in international media—and prior to that, wrote for television for nearly two decades.
“I had always assumed that my job was purely about writing. What directing taught me was that film is such a multi-disciplined form, where every little thing that ever gave you joy as a kid can be funnelled into your art. It seems so obvious, but that was a wonderful discovery for me,” she shares.
Lim grew up in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, but moved to Boston for university. It was a surprise for her to find that she wanted to stay. “I saw myself going away for college, but I also always saw myself coming back,” she muses. “I didn’t know it at the time, but in my heart, I always wanted to be a television writer. When you’re growing up in Malaysia, you don’t see that as a career option.”
“When you continually have shows with no compelling Asian characters, the subconscious message is that our stories are not as interesting and our people are not as fascinating”
Back then, Los Angeles seemed to her like the only place one could work in television in a meaningful way. “My parents always thought I would use any creative instincts I had to become a copywriter in advertising because that’s what they both did, so they were fine with me going to communications school in the States. Once I got there and saw what you could do in the writing field, I was very drawn to that. After graduation, much to my mother’s chagrin, I bought a trashy car and drove it across the country to LA. I thank my lucky stars that the car didn’t bust out somewhere in Utah and leave my lifeless body in the desert,” she laughs.
From there, Lim found her start in the writers’ rooms of television shows such as Xena: Warrior Princess and State of Grace. Still, the entertainment scene back then was nowhere near as diverse as it is now, both on-screen and off. “It’s hard for me to say what it was like for other Asian female writers in the industry back then, simply because I didn’t know any others. The first time I saw another Asian female writer, we were up for the same job. We immediately became friends. I think a deep part of me was craving and longing for that sense of cultural familiarity.”
As such, when Crazy Rich Asians entered the picture, it proved a turning point not just for the industry, but for Lim herself. Besides heralding a switch from television to film, it finally allowed her to tap into a side of herself that felt authentic and true.
“Everything we write is fiction, but it has to come from a real place. When you continually have television shows with no compelling Asian characters, the subconscious message that gets pushed across is that our stories are not as interesting, and our people are not as fascinating, attractive or engaging—and that is insidious,” she points out. “When I switched over to Crazy Rich Asians and Raya and the Last Dragon, it was like breathing. The creative process was so much more joyful and transcendent.”
Behind the scenes in Hollywood, things were changing too. Lim explains: “People think you’re born either being able to write or not, but that could not be further from the truth. Of course, there’s some natural talent and passion involved. In reality, it takes 10,000 hours of actually doing it to get good. Female minority writers traditionally have not been given those opportunities.”
Alongside organisations such as the Writers Guild of America and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, Lim has been working to support a new and increasingly diverse generation of storytellers. “I volunteer with these programmes and do mock writers’ rooms, panels and coaching sessions to give young writers a little bit more insight and guidance because it’s tough. It’s really tough.”
“There are all these stories from other cultures that people are not even aware of and I want to bring that to them”
Now, she’s taking her support for young writers one step further. Together with producer and executive Naia Cucukov, Lim is starting 100 Tigers Productions—a new production company through which she’s excited to work with up-and-coming writers to help them realise the vision of the stories they want to tell.
The kind of projects that Lim wants to highlight, in particular, are female-centric and cross-cultural. She elaborates: “There’s a world you and I grew up in and took for granted. It’s not until I emigrated that I realised what a gift that was. A lot of people don’t have these experiences growing up. There are all these stories from other cultures that they’re not even aware of and I want to bring that to them.”
An example she gives of one such story is The Night Tiger, a novel by Malaysian author Yangsze Choo. “The moment I realised this partnership with Naia could be very meaningful was when she found this book that I got really excited about. It’s set in pre-war Malaysia. I grew up with stories from my grandmother about those times, so I’ve always been fascinated by that world. We hope to one day turn the book into a television series, fingers crossed,” she shares. “Inspired by this very first project, the production company is called 100 Tigers. I remember having this period of fear and uncertainty, wondering what happens if this first project doesn’t work out. My very next thought was ‘who cares?’. Every success story is littered with tons of failures, and if one tiger doesn’t work out, we’ll have 100 tigers.”
Stepping into a new year and an ambitious new venture, Lim is led by two goals. She concludes: “On the cusp of going out on my own and starting on this new path, I want everything I do to come from a place of joy and passion, and I want to leave fear behind.”
Order your copy of the January/February ‘Intentions’ issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands now.