“Shanghai Calling” a humorous look through an expat’s eyes

“Shanghai Calling” is a humorous look through a fresh American expat’s eyes at daily life in the most modern city in China. This light romantic comedy follows Chinese American lawyer Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) through his initial dip into Shanghai, where his firm posts him for three months with the lure of a promotion upon his return. However, his New York smarts are tested when he receives an intellectual property infringement case (what else would there be in China?) that soon goes horribly awry, and threatens both his job and his values. With the help of a mixed group of locals and fellow expats, Sam finds more than just the answer to his legal troubles.

Henney gives an enjoyable performance as the cocky but absolutely out of his element Sam, and Eliza Coupe also does well as his love interest, the “relocation specialist” Amanda Wilson. However, the script does not do enough justice to the supporting characters, such as Awesome Wang (Geng Le), a mysterious jack of all trades; Fang Fang (Zhu Zhu), Sam’s assistant at the law firm; and Brad (Sean Gallagher), an American in search of adventure (and Asian women) while working as an English teacher. These were just a few of the many people cropping up to assist Sam along his way, and each one provided additional insight into the society that he swaggered into, leaving the viewer curious for further details.

The side stories added color to the film’s central plot and provided a welcome glimpse into today’s China beyond the political and human rights pieces typically featured in Western media. Fang Fang’s story is the most revealing of the pressures of this emerging society – pretending to be the daughter of a wealthy family in order to gain respect, she secretly holds a second job as a waitress in a karaoke club to pay for the designer goods that uphold her image. In actuality, her parents are blue-collar workers from neighboring Jiangsu Province, and she still lives at home with them and her grandmother. In another sliver of revelation, factory owner Lin (Jesse Huang) confesses that he used his entire family’s savings to finance his business. These dreams reflect the big risks and burdens that are undertaken in reality as the Chinese pursue wealth and a more comfortable life in the country’s aim to catch up with the West.

However, one wonders whether a wide American audience would be able to fully understand and appreciate the cheeky fun that the film’s writer and director, Daniel Hsia, pokes at certain stereotypes and situations. For example, as this reviewer has previously resided in Shanghai, she can distinctly relate to, and laugh at, the bewilderment Sam feels when he first meets Awesome Wang in a noodle restaurant and finds himself losing privacy by the second as others crowd around to sit at their table. By the end of their conversation, Sam is straining to speak around a stranger’s large tuft of hair planted directly in front of his face.

In response to this, Hsia explained in an interview with Meniscus Magazine, “From what we have seen…everyday Americans who have never been abroad are on board with the movie. They get it and they like it. This is a story about China told mainly from the point of view of a guy who’s never been there, and so for an American audience, we’re all in Sam’s shoes. As he experiences things, situations where he doesn’t know what’s going on, we are also experiencing those situations. His emotions are our emotions. His journey becomes our journey.”

Perhaps the most easily accessible aspect of the film for foreign viewers lies in the sheer energy of Shanghai itself, captured brilliantly in scenes along the golden-lit Bund on one side of the city’s riverfront and panoramic views of the enthusiastically neon-festooned Lujiazui district directly across. When asked why he settled on Shanghai as the location for his story, Hsia replied, “It’s so alive and vibrant, and it’s so amazingly beautiful too. You’ve got the most gorgeous, new, daringly engineered skyscrapers in the world right across the river from these old colonial buildings from the 1920s.” Maybe the romance is not the one between Sam and Amanda, but rather the director’s embrace of China’s imperfect modern society, as he sensitively depicts in “Shanghai Calling.”

Yuan-Kwan Chan contributed to this report.

Meniscus Magazine is proud to be a sponsor of the 2012 San Diego Asian Film Festival. “Shanghai Calling” screens on Sat., Nov. 3, at  2:15 p.m., at the UltraStar Mission Valley.  For tickets, go to festival.sdaff.org.

Excerpts from our interview with Daniel Henney: