As a producer on such films as “Pit Stop,” “Land Ho!” and “Man from Reno” in recent years, if Emily Ting’s name can be found in the credits, you could be assured of two things – for one, something good awaits and two, you’re in for as much of an adventure as she was in getting them off the ground.
“As an investor, it was like the worst possible investment because they’re no-name actors. They’re not high concept,” says Ting, who initially started out in making documentaries. “I went with my gut because I just loved the scripts so much, and each one of them went on to such great things.”
It’s no surprise then that a similar sense of exploration has been weaved into the very fabric of her first narrative feature as a director, “Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” a delightful stroll through the neon-lit streets of the city in Southeast China with Ruby (Jamie Chung) and Josh (Bryan Greenberg), a pair of American expatriates from different coasts who meet each other when the former asks the latter for directions. After sharing stories about how they made it to Hong Kong and the people they had hoped to be, the realization that they’ve been on a similar path makes them wonder if they should be walking it together, if only one of them wasn’t already committed to another.
Loosely based on an experience Ting had herself, the film follows the well-worn emotional territory laid out in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” series and other descendants such as Alex Holdridge’s “In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” but takes it somewhere new and vibrant, following Ruby and Josh through the mid-level escalators of the world famous SoHo District and into the city’s wild marketplaces where spicy crab and Tsingtao are constantly served up. The only thing more piquant, of course, is the conversation between the pair, which ranges in topics from petty East Coast/West Coast squabbling to recognizing their place in a generational shift that has the young seeking out opportunity in Asia after their parents worked so hard to get them to the States.
Shortly before the film’s premiere this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Ting spoke of how she found her way to “Hong Kong,” her luck in casting a real-life couple in Chung and Greenberg to play her leads and why even if Hong Kong may have some of the best food in the world, they just haven’t nailed the recipe for nachos yet.
How did this come about?
I lived in Hong Kong for five years as an ex-pat – for most of my twenties – and I know the city really intimately. I felt it was very instrumental in shaping who I am today, so it wasn’t out of the blue, [I thought] “Let me go make a movie in Hong Kong.” When I was living there, I always wanted to make a romance set there since it’s just such a cinematic and beautiful city and I was surprised that there weren’t more, like “Lost in Translation”-type films made there. Because no one else came around to do it, I decided to do it myself.
From what I understand, your documentary “Family Inc.,” which is autobiographical covers some of the same territory that becomes the basis here for Ruby’s character. Did you feel like you could explore some things here you may have thought about then but they weren’t necessarily part of your story?
They say, “Write what you know,” right? It was very meta of me to make her a toy designer because it’s what I know, so it’s tongue-in-cheek to shine a light on this other side of my life. But it’s so interesting that you brought up “Family Inc” because it’s this very small, intimate, personal documentary I made years ago that I didn’t think anybody ever saw about me having to go home and work for the family business. I took that element for Ruby’s character, but the whole movie is still very much a romance. The fact that she’s a toy designer is almost like a side note.
One of my favorite lines that Ruby has is when she’s describes the generational shift of people now flocking to Asia for opportunity when earlier generations moved to America. Is that something you’ve witnessed firsthand?
Yes, that very much mirrors my experience as well. Because my family worked really hard to send me to the States to grow up American. Then right after graduation, all the opportunities were in China. When I left and went to work in Hong Kong, I met a lot of fellow ex-pats in the exact same situation [where] we grew up in the States. Our parents were Asian immigrants in America and now we are American ex-pats in Asia, so it’s this weird turn of events. Because people keep saying, “China is the new future,” I’m really grateful for having lived in Hong Kong for that period of time and learning how to do business over there. I learned so much.
Was it interesting for you to go back now to shoot this?
I moved to LA five years ago from Hong Kong, but I still travel there five to six times a year for my family’s toy business, so it doesn’t feel like, “I’ve lived in Hong Kong for so long, now I’m coming back.” But going back there as a filmmaker felt very different.
Logistically, was this difficult? Watching the bus scene, I’m thinking you didn’t block it off…
We rented the bus and the ferry. But when they go to Lan Kwai Fong or when they’re walking along Nathan Road, those five-minute walking and talking takes, those streets were all fair game. I just plopped them down and said, “Go.” There were a huge amount of people, so we’d hide across the street and shoot with a long lens. People didn’t even realize they were acting, because we didn’t have a [person holding a boom mic]. They had a lot of layered mics. There were just these two people having a conversation.
Were there certain landmarks that were important for you to include?
I wrote about 90% of those locations that are in the film into the script. I feel like a local Hong Kong film wouldn’t go out of their way to showcase Hong Kong because they live there. They take it for granted. But since I knew this was from the Western perspective and was going to have a big life outside of Hong Kong, I really wanted to shine the best possible light on Hong Kong. I purposely chose all the most cinematic places to shoot and all my personal favorite places. When I was writing, I knew I wanted to shoot the Avenue of the Stars. If you want to get technical, a local person might say, “That’s not the way [there],” but I took a little liberty with that to showcase all the prettiest sights.
Right from the beginning, the beautiful array of lights become part of the fabric of the film. Did you do much to bring that out or is that all natural?
Everything was natural. We basically just used the neon lights of Hong Kong as our light source. The neon lights were our gaffer. The little bit of lighting source we had was we had a little China ball on a boom pole that our gaffer followed with the actors to fill in their face, but that was it. Everything else is neon lights. All that bocca lights in the beginning over the opening credits were the real out-of-focus lights in Hong Kong.
At some point, Ruby talks about lusting after nachos with Doritos and yogurt. Is that a real thing?
It was! Hong Kong is a very cosmopolitan city and it’s like the food mecca of the world. Really amazing sushi…everything. They just couldn’t get the Mexican food right. I’d go to a Mexican restaurant and they take nacho cheese Doritos and they’d confuse sour cream with yogurt. I love nachos, but it’s the most disgusting thing. That was one of the biggest disappointments. You can’t get good nachos. That’s based on a real experience.
Since Jamie and Bryan are a real-life couple, it sounds like they came as a package deal, but was it difficult to convince them to cross the ocean?
No, it was almost too easy. Because this was my first feature, a lot of people told me you can wait for months, sometimes years, for a name actor to read your script, let alone sign onto to it. I had actually known Bryan because I had worked with him on a movie called “The Kitchen,” which I produced and he starred in. At the LA premiere of that movie, he was like, “What are you working on next?” So I told him that I was writing this script about this Asian girl who goes to Hong Kong and meets an American ex-pat there, and he’s like, “Did you know my girlfriend is Asian?” And I knew he was dating Jamie, but it was totally random because I always pictured her in the role when I was writing it. So I just did the very Hollywood thing of saying, “Can I send you the script for you to pass along to her?” Two weeks later, they read the script and said, “Yeah, we’re in.”
Was directing a narrative feature any different?
Yeah. Previously, I’ve produced features and I’ve directed documentaries and shorts and because [“It’s Always Tomorrow in Hong Kong”] was a 14-day shoot, it just felt like a very long short film. [laughs] Directing a feature is definitely very different from producing a feature because you’re using different parts of your brain, but I really enjoyed this process. I also really enjoy producing films, so I don’t think I’m going to necessarily give that up. Hopefully, I can still balance both.