Finally showing: movie that makes everyone fall in love with Hong Kong
Emily Ting's debut feature film, a romantic drama into which she's sunk her life savings, offers Western audiences 'a refreshing take' on the city, she says. After a months-long wait, the film is now screening in Hong Kong
Asian-American director Emily Ting I-tien's first full-length feature, shot entirely in Hong Kong, shows the city in such a favourable light that reviewers have been telling her the Tourism Board should have her on the payroll.
The 78-minute film, titled It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, is about a Chinese woman from Los Angeles who visits for business, meets an American expat working in finance, and develops a budding romance while exploring various parts of the city, from Lan Kwai Fong and Central to Chungking Mansions and Temple Street. The 35-year-old Ting says she made the film to explore those rare moments when people make genuine human connections in a bustling city such as Hong Kong (inspired by a similar moment of her own), and to show the city in a different light.
"This film shows a different side of Hong Kong that people who are not familiar with Hong Kong have not really been subjected to. To a lot of Westerners, it feels like a really refreshing take on Hong Kong, something that they haven't seen before," Ting says.
She feels so strongly about this that she has sunk most of her life savings into the film. She doesn't want to say exactly how much it cost, except that it was less than US$1 million. "When I say that this movie is a culmination of everything I've been building in my life, it truly is on a personal level, on a creative level, and even on a financial level."
Roya Rastegar, associate director of programming and curated content at the Los Angeles Film Festival, says she knew the film was a success because the programming staff were all dying to go to Hong Kong after they first watched the film.
"It's almost embarrassing because I didn't have any idea of how amazing Hong Kong was. Because it is a romantic story that was set in Hong Kong, it also felt like Hong Kong was a very romantic city, in the way that Paris is, or in the way that Los Angeles is a creative and romantic city."
Last year, the film played at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and the New York Asian Film Festival. It's received several favourable reviews, including from the industry publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
Almost every reviewer has compared her film to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, though Ting says she was also inspired by Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, an Oscar-nominated film starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two Americans who develop a relationship after a chance encounter in a Tokyo hotel.
Ting says she took the couple, played by real-life couple Jamie Chung (you may know her as Mulan in the ABC TV series Once Upon a Time or as the voice actor of Go Go in Big Hero 6) and Bryan Greenberg, to shoot in places such as the Mid-Levels escalator with neon lights blinking in the background, Avenue of Stars with a stunning view of the Hong Kong skyline at night, and bustling Nathan Road, because she wanted to show a Westerner's perspective of Hong Kong.
"I picked out the most beautiful locations and shot them very lovingly and made everything look sparkly and beautiful, but on the other hand, I didn't just pluck Hong Kong out of the blue," Ting says. "I have a real connection to the city; it shapes so much of who I am as a person, to have spent those formative years in Hong Kong."
Ting, who was born in Taipei but later moved to LA with her family, spent five years in Hong Kong in her 20s, but she came very reluctantly. Her father, toy tycoon Charles Ting, brought her over to learn the family business. Ting says the film is based on an experience in 2012 where she met a man with whom she connected and ended up party hopping until 6am.
"Hong Kong can feel a little alienating and overwhelming at times, because it is so fast paced and everyone is always on the go," Ting says. "When you do find that sort of connection with someone, it can feel very magical. But when I found out at the end of the night that he had a girlfriend, it sort of threw me for a loop because all night we were building toward something, and then it turned out it was all in my head. Maybe it was from the humiliation of that experience, or this romantic wish fulfilment, but I basically went home after that experience and wrote a screenplay really quickly."
The screenplay was finished in a week. She spent a year refining it, signed on the two lead actors in 2013, and shot the film in May 2014.
This isn't Ting's first foray into cinema: she studied film at New York University, has produced 10 other movies, and directed a few shorts and documentaries, one of which - the 75-minute Family Inc - is about her time working in her father's toy business.
Rastegar says it's clear that Ting brought her skills as a producer to It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. Rastegar says that unlike some other first-time directors, Ting didn't have unrealistic expectations and made a film that doesn't rely on special effects, a lot of extras, or stunts. Instead, she says the film has a strong plot and nuanced, witty dialogue.
"She's a producer so she's very familiar with what's possible and what isn't," Rastegar says.
"She wrote a film that was based heavily on dialogue, and that really relied on two people, meaning there's not a lot of people to coordinate and things like that, but she also was ambitious in setting it in a totally different city outside the US."
Ting is still trying to get the film a wide release in Hong Kong, and says she's happy with what she made.
"I feel like I made a movie that I definitely would want to watch in the theatres myself; it's a movie that's very representative of who I am as a filmmaker and as a person," she says. "If this is it and I never get to make another film, I'm very happy that this is what I put out."
However, it's unlikely that this is the last we will see from Ting. She says she has other projects in the pipeline that she now needs to cast and finance, and hopes to make and direct more films in Asia, such as a family drama based on her own family in Taiwan, and a movie set in the factory world in China.
Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong screens at Broadway Cinematheque in Yau Ma Tei on March 8 at 7.40pm and on March 9 at 9.50pm. For details, visit www.cinema.com.hk/en/movie/details/8788