Review: In ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG, The Fundamental Things Apply
Here's the basic plotline of producer and now first-time writer-director Emily Ting's immensely charming romance Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, boiled down to its basic essence. A man and a woman meet, and -- spoiler alert -- fall in love over the course of two separate nights in an alluring, non-US city, in this case, as you probably gathered from the title, Hong Kong.
OK, so let's address the cinematic elephant in the room right off the bat. Yes, of course Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and its two sequels are unavoidable talking points with respect to Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. And to her credit, Ting doesn't try to deny or walk away from these obvious antecedents. But continually harping on this anxiety-of-influence angle, as too many commentators on this film have done, has the effect of essentially using Linklater and Before Sunrise as a stick to beat Ting's film with.
The unfortunate result of this is that it makes one willfully blind to, and unfairly obscures, the unique pleasures of this newer film, of which I'd argue there are many. And I'd also argue that Before Sunrise is far from the only, or even the most relevant, influence on Ting's film. As I mentioned before, the basics of this movie involve a couple falling in love, one of the oldest and most reliable narrative templates there is. Just like a rock song using three chords, the artistry can be found in the variations and specific details, as well as the quality of the execution.
Here's a more fleshed out version of the narrative. Ruby (Jamie Chung), a toy designer in Hong Kong on a work assignment, is standing outside a bar, struggling to find directions on her smartphone to another place where she's planning to meet some friends. Josh (Bryan Greenberg), an expat investment banker who lives and works in the city, is having a smoke outside the bar, and overhears Ruby on the phone. Josh offers to help her find her way and accompany her to her destination. Ruby, initially wary of Josh's intentions, at first refuses, and tries to get there by herself.
But she soon returns, admitting to Josh that she's utterly lost, and accepts his help. They forge an instant connection as they walk and talk, and trade playful banter that soon turns flirtatious. Josh also fills Ruby in on some of the ins and outs of the city; Josh has been there for a decade, while it's Ruby's very first time. Soon enough, they've both ditched their prior engagements in favor of spending time together and getting to know each other more. However, the unfortunately delayed revelation of the existence of Josh's girlfriend tosses a bucket of ice water on the proceedings. Even worse, the gathering Josh left to hang out with Ruby just happens to be his girlfriend's birthday party. After all of this comes out, the two awkwardly, and sadly, part company.
Fade into a year later, and Josh has traded his corporate wear for a flannel shirt, a messenger bag (complete with a Murakami Haruki novel), and a new ambition (inspired by Ruby) to make a go at it as a writer. He runs into Ruby again by chance while taking a ride on the ferry one night. Ruby lives there now, having taken a temporary position at her toy company's Hong Kong office.
After some initial awkward tentativeness, and necessary apologies on Josh's part, they pick up right where they left off, walking and talking and exploring the city. Their mutual attraction remains just as undeniable now as the first night they met. But the circumstances are a lot more complicated; Josh is still with his girlfriend, a local Hong Kong woman, while Ruby now has a boyfriend who lives back in the States.
Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong effectively makes maximum use of the alluring nocturnal beauty of its titular location. Josh Silfen's cinematography positively shimmers as it follows Josh and Ruby on their romantic journey. Both tourist landmarks and more unfamiliar places form an attractive backdrop for these equally attractive characters as they chat and are drawn inexorably closer to one another; the frequent use of shallow focus keeps our eyes trained on this central couple during their travels.
As mentioned before, despite taking place on two separate nights a year apart instead of just one, the shadow of Before Sunrise inevitably looms over this film. However, there are other points of reference that are just as pertinent and relevant, maybe even more so than Linklater. Emily Ting's scenario has just as much in common with the walk-and-talk sequences of Woody Allen's Annie Hall or Manhattan, or the loquacious romantic complications of Hong Sang-soo and Joe Swanberg. There's even faint echoes here of Hong and Swanberg's cinematic godfather, Eric Rohmer. All these other filmmakers represent equally fruitful areas of discussion of this film as the overused, and rather intellectually lazy, fall-back comparisons to Linklater.
This parlor game of spot-the-influence, however, ultimately does a disservice to Ting's remarkable achievement with this film. As a first-time filmmaker, Ting demonstrates a sure hand with both her visuals and the deceptively simple storytelling that she weaves into her characters' ambling conversations. Before Sunrise, while justifiably celebrated as an enduring work, is also a film very much of its time. The post-collegiate discussions that film's characters engaged in, with all their literary and philosophical references, were very much in vogue in independent film at the time of its release.
But now we're in a time largely defined by the prevalence of social media and the global pervasiveness of American pop culture. It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong speaks in a quietly powerful manner to the way we live now, and how we relate to each other today. Ting has a wonderful way of subtly illustrating this in the details she inserts into the periphery of her story: a glimpse of another couple, atomized from each other and lost in their smartphones; significant others who exist as Skype images; or the anxious real-time lag between a Facebook friend request and its acceptance.
The setting itself is also a very important thematic element here. Rather than the old-world Europe of Before Sunrise or Woody Allen's recent films, Ting confronts us with the very new Asia of contemporary reality, and the unique combination of ultra-modernity and enduring tradition that is a hallmark of Hong Kong and many other Asian metropolises. The film's very title speaks to this, evoking the headlong rush into the future that's a large part of the lived experience of many Asian cities.
As impressive as the storytelling and visuals are, though, the success of a film such as this -- with fairly limited elements, and only two principal characters -- ultimately rises and falls on the strength of the performances within. Any defects in that department, and the whole structure collapses like a house of cards. Happily, Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg ably rise to the occasion and prove to be quite compelling performers. The fact that their natural chemistry is enhanced by the fact of their being a real-life item is just the icing on the cake. Greenberg nicely conveys the evolution of his character -- who initially comes off as a bit of a jerk, if a charming and friendly one -- to someone who has humbled himself and later wrestles with the consequences of not settling for comfortable circumstances.
Jamie Chung, first introduced to audiences as a member of MTV's The Real World, has in the past few years established herself as a fascinating talent in many films. Even though she is often an ensemble player, she's proven herself more than capable of carrying a film on her own, as in the harrowing human-trafficking drama Eden (2012). Chung always shines, even when appearing in films that are hardly worthy of her gifts (ahem, The Hangover II and III). In Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, Chung delivers one of her finest performances to date, as a woman whose emotional and romantic journey is central to this story. Chung draws us in every step of the way, skillfully using her asset of wonderfully expressive eyes which, despite all the talking in this film, convey complex emotions well beyond spoken words.
Emily Ting's film, notwithstanding its modern-day devices, beautifully reminds us that despite our technological hyper-connectedness, the fundamental things apply, as was famously sung in Casablanca; we still need, and constantly seek, basic human connection. Enhancing the deeply lingering resonances of her film, Ting ends it all on a perfect note. Wisely eschewing the unfortunate tendency of American films to over-explain and leave nothing to the imagination, Ting leaves her characters at a moment pregnant with possibilities and potential forking paths of destiny.
Review originally published during the New York Asian Film Festival in July 2015 (under its original title It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong). The film will open in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, February 12, and will also be available via various Video On Demand platforms on the same day.