“How We Are Connected”: ‘Hank and Asha’ and the New Age of Digital Romance (Spoilers)

“My sweet Girl—Your Letter gave me more delight than any thing in the world but yourself could do; indeed I am almost astonished that any absent one should have that luxurious power over my senses which I feel.”
— John Keats in a letter to Frances “Fanny” Brawne, July 8, 1819.

Over the last three years of his life, John Keats painstakingly crafted letters for his sweetheart Fanny Brawne. They were alternately loving, insecure, and jealous, and always passionate. The romance remained unconsummated upon his death from consumption in 1821 at age 25. But Brawne held onto the letters, which surfaced many years later. They are now held as great works of art.

In James E. Duff’s wonderful new cinematic romance “Hank and Asha,” fittingly co-written with his wife Julia Morrison, the characters communicate from a far greater distance than John Keats and Fanny Brawne could have fathomed. But thanks to modern technology and their artistic energies, Hank and Asha strike up a meaningful connection. Hank (Andrew Pastides) is a struggling American filmmaker in New York, making ends meet as a beleaguered production assistant; Asha (Mahira Kakkar) is an Indian film student in Prague. No matter that New York and Prague are over four thousand miles apart. Asha has seen a film of Hank’s at a festival in Prague, found his email address online, and sent him a video message.

Asha’s message is the first thing we see in a film composed entirely of the characters’ digital epistles. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how we are connected,” she muses in that initial video. “Not in terms of technology, but in terms of meaningful impact. A lifelong connection between two people, or a connection that lasts only for a moment. Just one dance on the dance floor. Which has more beauty in it?” More to the point, which type of connection will Hank and Asha share? We will not know until the end. But one thing is certain, even early on: These two will leave a meaningful impact on one another. They quickly start to bond, sharing personal details about life and family and ruminating on their artistic passions. And they do it without seeing each other in person or communicating in real time.

Hank and Asha” speaks to a changing world, where long-distance romance has become more prevalent. But despite the modern ease of communicating instantly online, most films have until recently argued that proximity is ultimately a necessity for romance. Perhaps “Hank and Asha” signals that film is catching up to the world as it actually exists. The movie serves as counterpoint to silly romantic fare like 2010’s ‘Going the Distance,’ in which lovebirds played by Drew Barrymore and Justin Long find their relationship disintegrating under the weight of a long-distance relationship. Or look at 1995’s archetypal international youth-romance ‘Before Sunrise.’ That film’s transcontinental leads, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, fall madly and love over the course of a night, but are convinced that long-distance communication will deflate the passion from their relationship like helium from a balloon. So they keep their last names and phone numbers to themselves, instead aiming for another in-person meeting. (Spoiler for those who have not seen the 2004 sequel ‘Before Sunset’: They lose track of each other for nine years as a result.)

Hank and Asha” shows that modern technology allows for easier and more remote connections — and that this is not a bad thing. Where the characters in ‘Before Sunrise’ needed a chance meeting on a train, Hank and Asha needed only computers, email addresses, and digital cameras to, say, give each other guided tours of each other’s homes. “This is the first time that I’ve brought a boy home,” quips Asha as she moves the camera through her gorgeous Prague apartment.

The sexual tension is immense, even though they never talk in person or even speak in real time. In one message, Asha says goodnight to Hank while lying on her side in bed facing the camera. It looks like a POV shot, as if he really is there in bed with her. Distance, the film posits, does not preclude intimacy.

Ah, but eventually they must meet, right? Even in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romances ‘Sleepless in Seattle and ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ in which the love interests remain separate for most of the film, the ultimate meeting of the characters is what truly matters in the end. The long-distance communications are merely prelude; the in-person culmination of their romance is the point. Even Keats suggested in his letter that physical closeness is the ideal. And in the real world, he is probably right.

But “Hank and Asha” offers us a work of art. And Keats himself, at least as far as artworks go, once painted the opposite picture: The lover on his Grecian urn, preparing to kiss his fair partner, but frozen, never able to culminate the act. In that mind-set, personal contact actually destroys the work of art, which is locked in time — perfect, perpetually radiating promise and anticipation. With proximity, reality and all its imperfections come into play. Watch ‘Before Midnight,’ the recently released second sequel to ‘Before Sunrise,’ to get a look at just how messy relationships between two passionate and artistic people can become once they have a long-term relationship and must confront everyday realities.

Indeed, Hank and Asha’s perfect artistic connection cracks under the mere anticipation of real life — of meeting in person.  Hank buys two tickets to Paris. He sends one to Asha in an envelope, telling her to keep the camera running to capture her reaction as she opens it. It is not what he hoped for. She is terrified of the prospect of actually meeting him. Hank then makes his case, arguing for the encounter: In a charming sequence, he has dinner “with” Asha, eating and drinking wine at an upscale restaurant while talking to a camera positioned across the table. He even orders Asha a meal. Asha is sold, and agrees to meet him. But she drops a bombshell, revealing that she is slated to enter into an arranged marriage. Hank can barely conceal his devastation.

Hank and Asha nonetheless keep up their correspondence, and plan to meet in Paris – strictly as friends. Meanwhile, shots of Hank and Asha constantly emphasize how isolated they feel in their own lives from everyone but each other. Asha dances in a high-octane nightclub, somehow alone among the moving mass of bodies. “I just don’t belong,” Asha says of Prague. Hank stands outside a bar talking to the camera while a workmate abrasively knocks on a glass window from inside, indicating for him to enter.

It becomes increasingly clear: Whatever other connections they have are less meaningful than the one they share with each other. When Asha describes the family-dictated protocol through which she met her fiancée, and the prescribed communication regimen she shares with him, it all feels mechanical compared to the artistic, intimate videos she has shared with Hank. The film gets at the idea that connections formed thousands of miles away can be more substantive and emotionally important than those formed with people who are physically close — if those connections are formed at all.

In the end, Asha’s prior commitments prevent her and Hank from winding up together. Hank wants more than just a friendship, and the Paris meeting never comes off. Nowadays, of course, long-distance introductions do lead to physical closeness and long-term relationships with great frequency. Twenty percent of new romances now originate from online dating. (Full disclosure: this writer and his girlfriend fall into that group.) Had circumstances been better, maybe Hank and Asha could have come together. And inevitably, the relationship would have become messier. Life does that.

Still, in the real world, the goal in romance is to fully consummate a relationship and forge the deepest possible connection with a partner, physical and otherwise. Meeting, it goes without saying, is a prerequisite. But Hank and Asha exist within an artwork, a 21ST century portrait on a Grecian urn. Passionate, unconsummated, suspended in time forever. One dance on the dance floor. And it is rather a perfect one.

‘Hank and Asha’ Plays in NYC at IFC Center on MONDAY, JULY 8, 2013 @ 9pmTICKETS

– David Teich

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