Shanghai Calling is a sneaky little project. It spends a good 45 minutes convincing you that it’s a film about expat life in Mainland China only to pivot into a movie about Asian American identity. It is somewhat unconventional in both regards and at times has the awkward, amateur feel of a newly arrived foreigner fumbling his way through a business deal. But the result, however unpolished, is a unique and ultimately satisfying look at Americans at home, abroad.
Hollywood, like many other industries, has been eager to jump onto the China bandwagon. It has produced films about foreigners in China, but these generally fall under big, brassy genres like the historical epic (Flowers of War; Shanghai; The Painted Veil) or the action/martial arts flick (The Karate Kid (2010); Looper, kind of; Skyfall, kind of). Few show life as it is actually lived by Westerners there. Shanghai Calling seems eager to fill that gap by including every conceivable character type and situation one is likely to encounter – living with the clamour of unfinished construction in an apartment building; staring blankly at someone who knows you cannot speak Chinese but who speaks to you in Chinese anyway; meeting white Western sleazeballs who couldn’t hack it in their home country and have come to Asia to get laid.
Anyone who has worked or studied even a few weeks there will immediately find some part of their reality reflected in this movie. It comes very close to approximating the frustrating and mundane peculiarities of China, so much so that the first half of the movie could work equally well as an informational video for new arrivals.
In fact, this is exactly what the main character needs. Young hot(shot) lawyer Sam (Daniel Henney) thinks he’s in line for a promotion at his New York firm. He is shocked to find himself headed to China instead to help the firm’s biggest client secure a manufacturing deal for an über-advanced smartphone. Unversed in the subtleties of doing business there and used to getting his way, he doggedly throws his American chauvinism around and manages to offend everyone who tries to help him. He sneers at his relocation specialist Amanda’s (Eliza Coupe) idealism and her disdain for big business. When he gets himself into a legal manure pile, he scoffs at his friend and JFC chicken joint owner Donald’s (Bill Paxton) suggestion to seek help from someone named Awesome Wang (Geng Le). Then, when Sam finally meets Awesome, he has little patience for the latter’s mild way of solving problems. Worst of all, he accuses his assistant Fang Fang (Zhe Zhu) of sniffing around for a green card. Basically, dude’s a douchebag.
First time writer and director Daniel Hsia takes pains to show just how out of his depth Sam is, but his efforts can be embarrassingly transparent. Take the introduction of Marcus (Alan Ruck), Sam’s once boisterous Texan client. When they meet again in Shanghai, Marcus, donning a Chinese silk coat, is patiently practicing calligraphy on a giant scroll the length of a conference table. He admits wistfully that he has fallen in love with Chinese culture and even carries his brushes everywhere. A Brooks Brothers-ed Sam casts a doubtful glance, as does the audience, which expects Marcus to start stroking his beard and spouting Confucius. Hsia is not helped by his leading man, who looks the part but betrays little nuance. Henney takes each scene at face value, as if play acting an extended game of charades. I would say he won’t be winning any awards for this one, but Wikipedia tells me otherwise.
The prolonged effort to establish Sam as the outsider eventually pays off in a convoluted but surprising and honest way. He feels an unstated but palatable frustration at being Chinese in China and, on top of that, the least adjusted foreigner among many Americans who have found a home there. Hsia does a better job of quietly addressing Asian American identity by looking at the issue from the opposite side of the map. Rather than telling a story about alienation as an American, he explores Sam’s relationship with China. Despite Sam’s jockeying, this is where he is most uncomfortable and unsure of himself.
This story may be singular in film but not in experience. There are many expats, Asian American or not, who will want to see this reflection of themselves. If you dance around the lopping storytelling and uneven acting, you might enjoy this movie. Be sure to curl up with a bucket of KFC or Pizza Hut, as one does in China.
Chinese Title: 紐約客@上海
Prod: Janet Yang
Dir: Daniel Hsia
Writer: Daniel Hsia
Cast: Daniel Henney, Eliza Coupe, Bill Paxton, Alan Ruck, Zhu Zhu 朱珠, Geng Le 耿樂, Kara Wang
Time: 100 min
Lang: English, Mandarin
Country: United States