Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. You won’t have to wait until tomorrow to see Emily Ting’s debut feature, because this Hong Kong-set romance opens this weekend, at the Village East Cinema on 12th Street and Second Avenue in NYC and around the country. “Ruby (Jamie Chung), a Chinese American toy designer from L.A., visits Hong Kong for the first time on business. Finding herself stranded, she meets Josh (Bryan Greenberg), an American expat who shows her the city. Meandering through nighttime streets pulsating with energy and possibility, they fall into a winding and carefree conversation, buoyed by an undeniable attraction.” There is only one problem with their perfect “first date,” which Josh admits to Ruby–he has a girlfriend.
They part ways but run into each other a year later, after she has moved to Hong Kong. He still has his girlfriend and now she is engaged to someone back in America. But on their second night together, their attraction is even stronger and things become increasingly intense. We sense they were meant to be together for the next hundred years, but do they realize it, too? You will find that the Ruby and Josh have so much chemistry because they are played by the immensely charming Jamie Chong (terrific in the little known Knife Fight and as Mulan on TV’s Once Upon a Time) and Bryan Greenberg (HBO’s acclaimed Unscripted and October Road), who were engaged when they filmed this movie and married last Halloween. Fresh from being interviewed on Today, the two stars had breakfast and this conversation with me this Thursday in a very loud and crowded Le Pain Quotidien across from NBC.
Danny Peary: Bryan, I know that both you and Emily Ting went to Tisch, before she produced a couple of movies you were in. Did you meet there?
Bryan Greenberg: We were there at the same time but didn’t know each other. That’s the way NYU is. We “reconnected” on The Kitchen, which she produced with a lot of other NYU alums who I didn’t know either before working on that film. Then we worked together on A Year and Change, and while we were working on that she gave me the script for Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong for Jamie and me to read.
DP: So you were brought in as a team.
BG: Yes, we were engaged then.
DP: Jamie, did you know Emily at that time?
Jamie Chung: Yes, because I also did A Year and Change, in a tiny role. She was the producer and from that brief introduction, she told Bryan that there was this script she wanted both of us to read. She sent it over to see if we wanted to do it and we really loved it.
DP: In the production notes, Emily says you two to give her back “really good notes in re-working the script” and she “went through two months of intensive re-writes with their guidance.” What were your suggestions?
BG: The script was great. The dialogue flowed, the core of it was there but it just needed a little bit of a polish. The biggest thing was that after the two acts in Hong Kong there was also a third act set in Los Angeles. It was just a whole other thing and we all fell in love with the idea that it all take place in Hong Kong, which meant extending the film by making the second act a little longer. So we worked with Emily on that. She was super-collaborative but we don’t want to take any credit for the film you see.
JC: It is all Emily. The skeletons are definitely there but our thinking was from a character perspective, because that’s how we read scripts. We didn’t think of the story as a whole, which is what Emily did and is so hard to do. From my perspective–in the second act, when Ruby and Josh meet again after a year, there was nothing in the script that held her back from getting together with Josh. We needed something to tie her down a little bit, like give her a secret. Her secret was she was engaged. That kind of helped to pull her back a little bit…
BG: It raised the stakes.
JC: Right, it raised the stakes because she’s torn about what to choose. That was something we came up with together.
DP: If the first time they met, Josh didn’t have a girlfriend, would that have been a good time for them to begin a relationship or would it have been too early for them?
JC: The story would have ended there! Nobody wants to watch a movie about how much in love two people are. I feel it’s more interesting to watch imperfect people, imperfect couples. There’s got to be conflict. That’s what drives every story.
DP: Emily says she’s a big fan of Before Sunrise and the sequels and they were an influence on this, as is obvious. In the first movie, the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are young. If she had a boyfriend and he had a girlfriend back home it wouldn’t matter because of their ages. But your characters are older, with career responsibilities and a few more years of life and the maturity to make long-term commitments with another person.
JC: Yeah. The wok is one clear difference that sticks out with me. [Unlike the two young travelers in Before Sunrise] Ruby is in Hong Kong because of her new job. It’s not the job she wants to do but she knows she has to make some money with the toys before she can begin her own fashion line, which is what she really wants. Josh has a pretty great job in finance.
BG: But Josh is young enough to make a career switch. [He wants to become a writer, as Ethan Hawke’s character becomes.]
JC: It’s a quarter-century crisis.
BG: He’s old enough to be successful at something but young enough to make a pivot.
DP: Bryan, when they first meet, when Josh is taking a break from the party where his girlfriend is, and Ruby asks him for directions, would he have volunteered to walk her to her destination if she had been a guy?
BG (laughing): He was have said, “Hey, man, don’t you have an iPhone? Pull it out!”
DP: So immediately he realizes he’s doing something wrong?
BG: Yeah, that’s the beauty of this film. It really focuses in on that gray area of what is and what is not cheating–and the morality of actions, even when they are not physical. The nuance is fascinating and I applaud Emily for exploring that.
DP: Jamie, if Josh was wearing a ring, would Ruby have walked with him to her destination?
BG: I think she would have appreciated his help, regardless. And if he was wearing a ring, she would have felt more at ease, thinking, “He’s not trying to hit on me.” At the beginning, when he first asks her, she refuses him. Then she walks off and realizes how crazy Hong Kong is and she walks back up the stairs and says she does need his help. I think she would have said yes immediately if he was married. As a grown woman, when a man with a wedding band on is being polite I give him the benefit of the doubt.
DP: As they spend more time together on their walks, do you think Ruby and Josh have the exact same feelings toward each other, or is one way ahead of the other?
BG: It’s hard for me to say. But trying to be objective, I think Ruby is a little more taken by Josh than he is by her at the beginning.
JC: I don’t think so.
BG: You don’t think so?
JC: I don’t think she’s taken by Josh. I think she just appreciates his help. I think she eventually warms up to him.
DP: I don’t totally agree with that because there are expressions Ruby has that indicate she is attracted to him, too–although I’m not disagreeing that he is more attracted to her.
BG: She makes the choice to come with him. He doesn’t initiate that. He is helping her out but he’s not trying to push her to the next step. But when they meet again a year later, I do think that Josh is the one who is pushing it. He’s the one who is essentially saying, “I know it’s bad but let’s take it a little further.” I think Ruby is more innocent in the first act, because she doesn’t have a boyfriend then, and [not knowing Josh has a boyfriend], she is the one who is pushing it.
DP: I’m not sure if it’s more about her being innocent or naïve as it is her being curious, wondering where things could go.
JC: It’s always what ifs. “What if I’m making a mistake?” “What if this is the man of my life?” “What if my boyfriend back home is the man of my life?”
DP: I think one of the hardest things you had to do was to draw on your own experience of falling in love while at the same time remind yourself that Ruby and Josh are two different people.
BG: With acting, I think of everything as very short-term, immediate. When I approach the first scene I then think about what I want to do. It’s that near-sighted. So I can’t get caught up in if it’s my life or the character’s life because at that moment what I’m focusing on is so minute.
JC: I agree with that. In that first scene, as the character, you don’t know what’s going to happen; decisions are made in the moment.
BG: We were able to draw on our own history and that influenced a lot of the story, even some of the dialogue. And the idea of white guy dating Asian girls. That’s a little loaded: when he says that, of course I know what that is like. Also: when people, Josh and Ruby, meet for the first time and the timing isn’t right–that’s the same thing that happened to us. When Jamie and I met, the timing wasn’t right…
JC: There was no flirting.
BG: But there was something there.
DP: I’m sure you both saw Annie Hall and remember the scene when Woody Allen is having a polite conversation with Diane Keaton and meanwhile he’s actually wondering what she’s like naked. So when Ruby and Josh are walking down all those steps in Hong Kong and carrying on a civilized conversation, are there wild thoughts going through their heads?
JC: There’s always a subtext. There’s always something between the lines.
BG: It’s “what’s literally happening?” and “what’s actually happening?” That’s how I approach my work. I try to find what’s underneath because there’s always something that’s not on the page.
DP: You two seem so comfortable on screen together, like you’ve been acting together for years. Were you that comfortable?
JC: Yes. Physically we were uncomfortable because it was so hot in Hong Kong but emotionally very comfortable.
BG: Because we already were engaged…
JC: And living together…
BG: And we knew each other so well, so we decided that during filming we’d live in separate places. That created a little distance between us and the characters.
DP: I read in Us Weekly that you did that so it wouldn’t appear that your characters had your own high degree of chemistry, especially when they first met. I assume you filmed this movie chronologically so their chemistry would build.
BG: No. We actually filmed the second act first. I had to shave!
JC: But we did try to film what was in each of the two acts chronologically.
DP: Was there discussion about whether their second meeting a year later was fate, confirming they are destined to be with each other? You spoke earlier about how you two had to reconnect as well.
JC: They happen to meet each other on a boat at the start of the second act. And it’s completely fate because she never takes that ferry to Kowloon, and that where he lives. She’s taken aback because they left their first interaction so abruptly and she happened to move to Hong Kong since the last time they met. She’s a bit scared because now she is engaged. She wants to pick up where they left off or close the book after a final chapter.
DP: I know you have to identify some with your characters, but–and I consider them very likable–have you ever thought about whether they are good people?
JC: I think they want to try to do the right thing. I don’t think Ruby wants to hurt anyone. She certainly doesn’t want to hurt her fiancé back home. She’s the one to say, “I’m cheating.” Josh’s first response is: “We’re not doing anything. This isn’t anything wrong.” He’s in denial and yet he keeps pushing it to the next level, like one stop instead of two stops. It really is a personal decision on where you draw the line in terms of what’s cheating and what’s not.
BG: As actors and artists, it’s not our job to judge these characters, good or bad. I think everyone considers themselves a good person. Even Hitler did. It’s the audience’s decision about whether Josh and Ruby are good people. It could be that it’s a little bit of both and that makes it interesting.
DP: Are we watching them become increasingly attracted to each other, or are we watching them actually fall in love?
JC: I think they’re falling for each other.
BG: Yeah, they’re falling in love and fighting it. Is the juice worth the squeeze? Is it worth it. I know we shouldn’t be doing this but I can’t help but feeling this way. And I don’t know what to do. These characters are asking themselves, “What is the right thing to do?”
JC: I feel that the second act is very strong in regard to that conflict. It has been set up.
DP: Now that you’re married would you play your characters with a different perspective?
JC: I wish I played Ruby with more resistance in the first act. If a guy is hitting on you and you’re not having it but you need something from them–that would be more interesting versus trying to be coy with it.
DP: Well, I’d say Ruby resists him very strongly at the end of the first scene.
BG: No regrets. No looking back.
DP: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy do a lot of talking when walking in Richard Linklater’s trilogy. Unlike you two, they didn’t walk down stairs, at least as much. It really is an art.
BG: It really is. We had no permits to shoot there. We were just running and gunning.
JC: It was a free-for-all.
BG: We had some amazing takes that you’ll never see. One time a drunken ex-pat walked right toward the camera in the middle of a take. . There were a lot of long takes with us walking and because we were unable to control the situation, we just had to adapt to it. It was difficult and challenging.
DP: You both have done a lot of acting but have you ever done anything like this film?
JC: There hasn’t been anything so character-focused, with just two lead characters. I’ve never done anything like this.
BG: I’ve never done anything this intimate. This is one-on-one, two scenes, so contained.
DP: Talk about the title Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. I think it tells us something about the characters, both Americans living in Hong Kong, being unsettled in time and place.
BG: I never thought about it. I do think it’s a great title. I think this movie is very much about that city. It’s a character in the film and it is being introduced to western audiences in a way they’ve never seen before outside of action films. This is the first romantic film I’ve seen set in Hong Kong. I didn’t know about this city and was surprised by how progressive it is. It’s a crazy, advanced city. I feel like it’s a day ahead and L.A. is a day behind.
DP: In her director’s statement, Emily Ting, who has spent a lot of time there, describes Hong Kong as being a “magical” but “sometimes alienating metropolis.” I won’t give away the ending, but IF Josh and Ruby end up together, do you think that they’d stay in Hong Kong or return to America?
JC: They could get away and start fresh.
BG: Maybe, or they could set up shop in Kowloon.
DP: Was it a completely romantic setting in your view, or did you want it to be partly alienating?
JC: I liked getting lost in the crowd. I thought it was romantic.
BG: Very romantic.