Emily Ting’s feature film debut, “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” is an intimate deconstruction of the almost relationship between two people who spend two nights—one year apart—walking around the titular city while their own separate circumstances keep them in a state of emotional stasis.
Bryan Greenberg is Josh, an American ex-pat who works in the Hong Kong financial district and Jamie Chung is Ruby, a Chinese-American toy designer who is bashfully clueless about the city in which she finds herself. Their chance meeting (as well as their second chance meeting, about a year later), set against the backdrop of this visually vibrant city, offers up the question of what if; their attraction is obvious, but their lives have them on different tracks.
It’s a simple setup, but Ting’s script is spot on as these two feel each other out and also try to understand the emotional stakes of their interludes and how it relates to their lives and their own relationships. Throw in a walking tour of a city that makes itself felt as a third character (but never an intrusion) and you have a movie that’s interesting to look at as well as a fascinating character study.
The man tasked with shooting the film and helping Ting bring her ideas to the big screen while also keeping “Tomorrow” visually pleasing—after all, the bulk of the movie is Greenberg and Chung talking as they visit different locations in Hong Kong–is cinematographer Josh Silfen. He does succeed in that mission, as you easily get lost in the characters’ conversations while they melt in and out of some eye-popping scenery.
Silfen and Ting attended NYU at the same time, but didn’t know each other then. As he says, “We had a lot of mutual friends, so we met each other shortly after school.” Silfen shot “The Kitchen,” which Ting produced, and then they made a short film together, called “The Distance Between.”
It seemed natural then that Ting would approach Silfen to help her with her feature debut. But with the movie being set in Hong Kong, the pre-production phase was a little bit more involved than your standard indie fare.
“She had some ideas of how she wanted it to look and wrote it about specific locations that she had seen in Hong Kong,” Silfen said. “And she flew me out there about eight or nine months before we shot. And I went through the script with her in the locations and pre-imagined everything in the locations that she had in mind. We took a bunch of pictures, we chose some locations that she hadn’t already picked out, and we looked at locations that she already had picked out. A lot of those locations ended up changing by the time we actually shot. But I think it gave us a good place to start from at least.”
There’s a reason why the movie isn’t called “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hackensack.” Visually, Hong Kong is different from most large cities, and the cinematic possibilities were very apparent to Silfen.
“It was pretty clear why she wanted to shoot the movie there,” he said. “The whole movie takes place at night and it’s a very beautiful city at night. Just all the vibrant colors and bright lights; and I’ve spent a lot of time in other cities and I’ve lived in New York for a long time but Hong Kong was that much more exaggerated. Very intense, more so than other cities that I’ve ever been to.”
While the movie was made with a typically small indie budget, the reason why Ting chose Hong Kong was its visual character. So even if they had a more substantial budget, Silfen still would have largely chosen to light the characters the way he did; the intimacy of the scenes, coupled with how Hong Kong looks at night, allows the viewer a unique experience of watching Josh and Ruby cover familiar themes in an unfamiliar (at least to Americans) place. He used a Canon C500 to shoot “Tomorrow,” with special consideration given by Canon to the project.
“It’s pretty much all lit by the city itself. When they’re walking and talking we had a China ball with LEDs inside that we had on a boom pole and kind of lead them around with that,” Silfen said. “But that was mostly for fill. Everything else was just the way that it was. We had a few other lights here and there, but part it of was out of budgetary necessity, and part of it was out of a need to move quickly, but the other part of it was Hong Kong and the whole point of shooting there and to get all of that ambient light. And that would kind of defeat the purpose if we over stylized it or lit the characters in such a way that you’re no longer really exposed to the lights that are behind them.”
In talking to Silfen, it becomes apparent just how important lighting was to this movie. The look of the film is largely predicated on the lighting of the city—the skyline, the lights from the street, and even the glow from reflected light on water. The crew worked mostly at night, and it was crucial that they could shoot as much as they could at all times.
“It was summer, or almost summer, and there wasn’t even that much nighttime; it wasn’t 12 hours of night,” Silfen said. “And even if there was, we couldn’t shoot for 12 hours because, well first of all, the local crew didn’t want to work that long, and second of all, a lot of the locations and a lot of the scenes that we shot were completely dependent on the ambient light that was lighting them. Whether that’s lights on the street or in front of a store window or just a skyline behind the characters as they’re walking, we’re needing those to all be lit up and after a certain time at night the lights went off, I’d say usually some by midnight, some by two in the morning, so after that we really couldn’t shoot much. We’d usually shoot between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m., which is not really that long of a day.”
In addition to the lighting concerns, the filmmakers had to contend with covering a vast amount of ground under the constraints of a compressed schedule, as well learning to work with the local crews.
“In some cases, just learning local customs and the ways of the local crews worked, sometimes that was a challenge,” he said. “And just having a small budget and trying to shoot all over this big city in kind of a run and gun style, and that’s always a challenge, but it was a particular challenge because of language issues…”
And you can add the Hong Kong weather to the list of challenges. The summers in the city are notoriously sticky—although the film gods did smile on the production when it came to the rain.
“And also the weather in Hong Kong, it gets really hot, and really humid, and even at night, there’s no let up from the heat, and so the actors would start getting hot and start sweating and they would have to go sit in an air conditioned car between takes,” Silfen said. “And also there are a lot of spur of the moment storms that happen there,” he continued. “We got really lucky with the weather actually. Hong Kong is known for, it will just start pouring in a moment’s notice, but that rarely happened to us. There was one day where we were supposed to shoot on this beautiful rooftop bar and it was raining all day and we thought we wouldn’t be able to shoot there because of the rain, and we’ll have to pull it inside and it won’t look nearly as nice. But the rain let up right when it got dark, we shot the scene in three or four hours, and then right when we wrapped it started raining again. So we got lucky.”
Ultimately, for Silfen, the key to the look of the film comes down to how it was lit. The use of mostly ambient light allows the intimacy to develop between the characters, as well as allowing the city to shine in a way that it rarely gets to. This is not the blown out Hong Kong of James Bond or other big budget ventures; these two people are walking around a city that has a unique character to it.
“I’m really proud of how it came out,” he said. “I guess the thing that sticks with me visually most about this film is just how–I know a lot of cameras these days are better and better all the time at shooting in low light situations, but I feel a lot of times people use those cameras but then they’ll still shoot them in a traditional way where you light the subject the way you want to light it and just expose for that and that’s what you get. Our approach was more, ‘expose for what was already there, we’ll put the characters into frame, and if they need some extra light or if they need some light taken away, we’ll do that.’”