Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong  is Director Emily Ting’s feature narrative directorial debut. Hers is a story of two Americans whose paths cross while they’re in Hong Kong where one is living as an expatriate while the other is on a business trip. The two quickly develop a natural rapport and comfortable chemistry as they wander Hong Kong’s bustling, sleepless streets. This is, first and foremost, a film first about a budding romance; yet, a casual glance will elucidate that a big part of this film’s charm, aside from its leads, is Hong Kong: a unique and multifaceted metropolis. In an act of exploration into the creative decisions that went into the making of this film, I was able to correspond with Emily, via email, for a Q&A on her film and her work. The result is transcribed below.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I had gone to film school at NYU, but shortly after graduation, my father wanted me to go to Hong Kong and learn the family toy business. So I took a detour and went to design toys in Hong Kong for most of my 20s. I wanted to get back into indie film and decided to move to Los Angeles 5 years ago in order to make that happen. And I started out by producing other people’s films to re-learn the filmmaking process.
It looks like your previous directing credits were for documentaries. How did this project compare to your previous directing experiences? Furthermore, has your experience in documentary filmmaking informed how you work or impacted your directing style? (And if yes, in what ways?)
My concentration in film school had been documentaries and I had worked for a documentary distribution company right out of school. But in the last few years, my interest has really shifted to narrative filmmaking. Because of my previous interest in documentaries, I really love narrative films that feel unscripted. With ‘Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,’ I wanted it to feel natural and spontaneous like you’re just tagging along with two people on a date. I tried to hold on them for as long as I could without cutting away to coverage so that you see the chemistry develop organically. I think the biggest difference between directing documentaries and narrative films is really working with actors. In documentaries, you’re just watching real life unfold. But in narrative films, you want your actors to be as natural and as in the moment as possible, so that ironically, it feels like you’re just watching a documentary.
Why did you want to tell this particular story?
I had wanted to make a romance set in Hong Kong for a long time because I think it’s just such a cinematic and romantic city. But I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell in Hong Kong until I met a fellow expat one night and had an encounter that inspired the premise of the movie. Even though the setting is very specific, I think the story is a very universal one. Who hasn’t met someone spontaneously one night and had a connection, only to have that romantic bubble bust because that person is not available. I also wanted to create a portrait of Hong Kong from an expat’s perspective, which I feel like I haven’t really seen before.
This story shares a lot of similarities with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise . Can you comment on what this film (or the Before trilogy) means to you and what you were hoping to accomplish with your reimagining of this premise?
Before Sunrise not only influenced me as a filmmaker but it also greatly influenced my romantic outlook on life. The first film came out when I was 14, and as a teenager who’s never been in love before, I looked upon Celine and Jesse’s brief encounter as my personal relationship goal. I went backpacking through Europe right after college, hoping to recreate that, and alas, never met a stranger on a train. But by the time the second movie came out, I’ve had a couple of heartbreaks under my belt, and the film touched me even more deeply. I remember sitting at the back of Angelika theater in New York City and just bawling my eyes out watching the film. Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is absolutely an homage to Before Sunrise. And as much as I loved Jesse and Celine, I think it would be sad if Ruby and Josh and Hong Kong don’t get to have their own Before Sunrise treatment. I think that every city deserves to have a Before Sunrise, and I’m just trying to give Hong Kong its moment and reimagine this story from an Asian American/Hong Kong expat’s perspective.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot and why?
Shooting in Lan Kwai Fong was definitely the hardest scene to maneuver. We wanted to capture the massive crowd of this party area, so we went to shoot at midnight on a Saturday night. Lo and behold, it’s filled with people and music was blasting out of all the bars. The actors were a bit apprehensive about walking into that huge crowd. We had two cameras rolling and hiding nearby. They walked through the crowd, said their lines, and walked off camera. We did it all in one take. And we came back on Tuesday night at 6 pm to shoot the remainder of the dialogue scene, when the area is much quieter.
What was your favorite scene to shoot and why?
I think that one of my favorite scenes to shoot was the promenade scene. We had this gorgeous location right in front of Hong Kong’s iconic skyline, and it was going to be the longest walk and talk sequence we’ve shot up to that point. The coverage was simple, but it was all on the actors to deliver it as a oner. We did the first take with our steadicam operator, and it was just magical. The camera work was beautiful, and the actors really delivered. We could have cut then and had a perfectly useable take on the first try. That scene to me epitomizes what this film is.
As much as this film was about the budding romance between your two leads, it also prominently featured Hong Kong. Is there a specific location that was your favorite and why? What about your personal favorite spots in Hong Kong? Furthermore, what was your experience of shooting in Hong Kong like?
I wrote probably 80% of the film’s locations into the script. I really wanted to feature all of my favorite locations in Hong Kong, so places like the Mid-Level Escalators, Elgin Street, Lan Kwai Fong, the Promenade, Temple Street Market were all written into the script to highlight all of Hong Kong’s most famous sites. But my favorite location in the whole film is actually Sense 99, the music club they visit toward the end of the movie. As I mentioned before, I had an encounter in Hong Kong very similar to the one that Ruby and Josh had in the movie. And one of the places we went to that night was this little music club. And that night, while sitting there watching the band play, I turned to my friend and said, ‘Look at how cool this place is. I’d love to make a movie in Hong Kong some day and feature it.’ And four years later, here we are.
It seems that, in part, your female lead, Ruby, had to reconcile with her feelings and opinions regarding mixed-race relationships. Can you comment on what you were trying to explore here?
The bus scene where Ruby and Josh discuss Asian girl/white guy coupling is a controversial one. Some who read the script cautioned me against it, but I felt it was really important for me to address it. I think I channeled a lot of my own viewpoints in that scene. I do find myself being judgmental every time I see an older white man with a younger Asian woman. But yet, I’m perpetuating the stereotype myself by dating a white guy. And I’ve often times wondered what other people thought of us when they saw us together, and if they made the same type of assumptions as I was making on them. And I experienced it again with all the backlash I’ve received from people who haven’t even seen the film yet. All they can see is a film about an Asian woman and a white man, and they would attack me for perpetuating colonialism and being a self-hating Asian.
Can you comment on your thought process and logic behind shooting at night and setting the entire story at night?
Hong Kong really comes alive at night and the neon lights and skyline are just so iconic. Hong Kong during the day is just not as pretty, so I decided to set the whole film at night, purely for aesthetic reasons.
What or who would you say are your influences and why? (Read: Who’s your cinematic spirit animal?)
Besides the obvious influence of Linklater’s Before Sunrise Trilogy, I was also influenced by Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and Chunking Mansion, and any one of Woody Allen’s many talky New York romantic comedies from the 70s.
It looks like you’ve worn quite a few different hats involved in the entire filmmaking process. In taking on all these different roles—like producing, writing, editing and directing—can you comment how you tackle all these different aspects of filmmaking?
I enjoy producing and directing differently, as I feel they utilize different parts of your brain. I think that being able to direct material that you wrote is the most gratifying part of the filmmaking process. But coming from an indie producing background, I feel like I’m able to approach a project with a producer’s hat on. Knowing the limitation of the budget, I conceived a story that I know could be executed well within the limitation, as opposed to trying to stuff a larger film into a small budget and have everything suffer as a result. I think that I’m also better at making compromises than maybe some other first-time directors because I know what the producer has to go through to make something work. And if an element in the script is truly too cost prohibitive, then I’m more than willing to try to find an alternative solution.
Having written the screenplay for this film, can you comment on what that was like? Do you have any advice for your fellow writers working on a screenplay?
I wrote this script pretty quickly because it was inspired by a real-life event, so it just sort of flowed out of me, but I don’t know if I would necessarily classify myself as primarily a writer. I have been so busy promoting this film while also tending to my day job, that I’m actually really looking forward to finding some free time soon to write my next one. I have a few ideas percolating that I’d love to develop further.
What was the biggest challenge in making Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong?
I think that being a first time director is already difficult, but to make your first feature in a foreign country only makes it that much more challenging. Even though I had lived in Hong Kong before, I had never worked on a film set there. There are little ways of working that are just different from what you’re used to. I had brought over some of my key crewmembers to Hong Kong (like my DP, production designer, editor, etc.). I had to make sure that they could communicate and work together with their various crew. Everyone was extremely professional, but it did take a little time to get into the groove of working together.
I think the biggest challenge for me was to overcome the hurdle of my own insecurities as a first time director. The majority of my set crew had more experience with their respective jobs than I did, which was a daunting but exciting feeling. Sometimes, I would let that knowledge get inside my head, but I also learned to let go and really listen and trust my crew and cast. It gradually became a very collaborative process.
You’ve got an infinite budget and all the time you need, what kind of project do you finally tackle?
I am currently reading “The Expatriate” by Janice Y.K. Lee. It’s such a beautifully written book about the interconnected lives of 3 American women living as expats in Hong Kong. I haven’t resonated this much to a book in a while. I love how richly drawn each of the 3 main female characters are, and I think that these are the type of roles (including two for Asian Americans) that actresses dream of. The world they inhabit is one that I know intimately, and I would love to make another film in Hong Kong. But it’s a much bigger film than the little intimate walk and talk romance that Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is. I would love for a big production company to option it and consider me to direct!
Lastly, what are you working on next?
I have a female-centric comedy called 31 Second Chances about a girl who, after wasting the entire year away, decides on December 1st to conquer all her New Years Resolutions, and turn her life around, before the end of the year. A Chinese company has shown interest in the script, so I will be working on adapting it for the Chinese market next.
Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is out now