Shanghai Calling film review by staff writer Sung Kong.
The basic romantic comedy concept of opposites attract is brought to a whole new cross-cultural setting in Daniel Hsia’s first feature film, Shanghai Calling. Certainly more of a comedy at heart, which can probably be attributed to Hsia’s background as a writer for popular television comedies such as “Psych,” and “Rodney,” the film is definitely as busy and characteristic as the city the film derives its name from.
The story revolves around corporate lawyer Sam (Daniel Henney), who under the threat of losing his candidacy for a law firm partnership, is forced against strong protest to relocate to Shanghai in order to secure an important business deal. Other than having an Asian last name and appearance, Sam is about as Chinese as your local Panda Express, being unable to speak the local language and generally lacking all notions of Chinese customs and norms. Fortunately for Sam, he is conveniently located near “America-Town,” which as the movie explains it is the counter-part to America’s “China-Town,” and is accompanied by the beautiful American “expatriate” and love interest, Amanda (Eliza Coupe), to help ease the transition. Still, Sam’s arrogance and aggressive demeanor gets him into heaps of trouble when he is conned by a competing tech company in a licensing agreement, forcing him to employ the help of unique characters to right the wrongs in both his career and his perspective on the city of Shanghai.
These unique characters though, have problems of their own. Donald (Bill Paxton), an American expatriate and mayor of America-Town, faces election woes when a new candidate challenges his reign. And Fang Fang (Zhu Zhu), Sam’s assistant, must deal with the increasing social stigma and class that often comes with a modernizing and changing city.
Most of the laughs come from Sam’s reaction to the cultural parodies he is faced with or the unexpected outcomes that results from his American bravado. This requires comedic timing, and Daniel Henney does a great job with a broad range of facial expressions to boot. His on-screen chemistry with Eliza Coupe is a little too good though, and sort of borders on the more platonic side than head-over-heels. Comic reliefs Awesome Wang (Geng Lee) and Brad (Sean Gallagher) further adds to the wackiness and delight of the film.
Not all is fun and games in Shanghai, and the film is peppered with poignant commentaries on how Americans all fit into modern China. Some topics are brazenly pointed out such as Sam and Amanda’s lunch talk about American morality in Chinese economics. Other topics are more subtle, such as Amanda’s daughter’s refusal to speak English or Donald’s fate in the mayor elections. Regardless, the topics coming from a character perspective, helps build character development and empathy. More importantly, the topics are seamlessly integrated and never forced upon the audience, allowing the film to maintain its light-hearted vibe.
Cinematography is interesting with varied shots from city sweeps to locals doing tai chi in the park, but it is sadly lost in the film’s sea of interesting characters and unfortunately never finds it way back again. Sound for the most part works in the same way with music being largely used to cue audiences on comedic points.
There is some concern that the more cultural elements might be lost on an audience that is unfamiliar with Chinese customs and mores, but with a tight cast, interesting story, and a comedy that relies on the unexpected, the film should truly be a fun ride for anyone looking to stroll through Shanghai at their local theater. Really, the only confusion might be why Daniel Henney looks so damn good in a suit.
Shanghai Calling will be screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival on Oct. 12th, 15th & 27th. For more information and to purchase tickets visit their website: HIFF
Shanghai Calling will also be screened at the Boston Asian American Film Festival on Oct. 28th. For more information and to purchase tickets visit their website: BAAFF