Josh (Bryan Greenberg) and Ruby (Jamie Chung) meet outside of a bar. She’s lost, but he knows where she’s going, so they take a walk together. The experience of subsequently following them in writer-director Emily Ting’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong will probably be familiar to anyone who’s eavesdropped on a first date. Their conversation is stiff and the laughs are forced. They banter amiably, but never seem to forge a genuine connection. As you listen in, simultaneously bored and fascinated by this obligatory cultural routine, you can’t help but ponder the pair and their future: what love feels like to them, whether they’ll grow strange and comfortable with one another, or, more forbiddingly, whether these are the genuine interactions of perfectly normal individuals, the proto-millennial robots of late capitalism.
Part of the inspiration, and perhaps the fantasy, of Before Sunrise’s Celine and Jesse is that they were able to simultaneously cycle through epochal first-date bullshit and project an irony about it that revealed a sense of how they thought and experienced the world. No such fate endears us to Josh and Ruby in Ting’s debut feature, a walk-and-talk romance that follows Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy in method without betraying a hint of romance, idiosyncrasy, or wanderlust. Here, the couple is conventionally attractive. He’s in finance, but he wants to write a novel. She hoped to start her own fashion line, but got into work producing novelty stuffed animals. They’re unattached to their (respectively Jewish and Asian) heritage. They think a mutual love of Seinfeld makes them unusually compatible, and they joke about not accepting each other’s friend requests on Facebook.
The film labors for a strong sense of place, but strange lapses confirm a sense that the city isn’t a character here.
The only unusual thing about Josh and Ruby is that their chance meetings take place in an exotic setting: the streets and upscale foodie bars of Hong Kong. D.P. Josh Silfen captures Josh and Ruby both up close and from a distance, allowing multilingual street signage and neon lights to dangle over the couple like a constellation of mistletoes. Whether a scene is set in a quiet room or a bustling city street, the characters are closely miked, diminishing the ambient sound of the city and distancing Josh and Ruby from their surroundings. As they fitfully discuss their cultural differences and some attendant ironies (Josh speaks Cantonese and likes fried chicken feet), Ting’s script labors to give her film a strong sense of place, but strange lapses confirm a sense that the city isn’t a character here. At one point, Josh and Ruby pass an apparently bleeding, injured man. It’s played for suspense, to suggest that the couple are in a sketchy part of the city, but the moment provokes no reflection or meaningful conversation from either character.
The scene suits a film that gradually assumes a commanding aura of complacency, even after its leads meet by chance and fall for each other once and then again. Josh and Ruby embrace the inane, unedifying banter of the first date just as they shrug off the vibrancy surrounding them and the globalized economy from which they earn their comfortable livings. All that prevents these earnest, congenial leads from getting together are their disembodied partners: a girlfriend’s picture on a cellphone, a boyfriend Skyping in from Los Angeles. These contrivances should foster a will-they-or-won’t-they suspense, but greater mysteries persist. Who likes a finance bro who reads Murakami and orders vodka Red Bulls? Who likes a girl who sets foot in Hong Kong and says, “I miss Netflix”? Why should we be rooting for two wealthy people who spend a musical montage haggling with a merchant over the price of selfie sticks? Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong plays more less like a romance than a tourism board ad targeted at thirtysomething Americans with too much disposable income.