China/US, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 100 mins.
Director: Xia Wei 夏伟 [Daniel Hsia].
Light, cross-cultural rom-com has few of the usual cliches and awkwardnesses.
New York, the present day. Ambitious Chinese American lawyer Sam Chao (Daniel Henney), 28, a rising star at Powell & Davies, is assigned to China, as the firm’s top client, Groff Technologies, is moving its HQ to Shanghai. Unwilling to leave New York, Sam Chao finally agrees to go for three months, especially when it’s made clear it could mean a partnership for him. On arrival, Sam Chao is taken care of by “relocation specialist” Amanda Wilson (Eliza Coupe), a longtime resident and single mother, who introduces him to Donald Cafferty (Bill Paxton), local rep of the American Chamber of Commerce, and “mayor of Americatown” (the slang name for Shanghai’s US expat community). Initially pushy and arrogant, Sam Chao slowly learns to adapt to local ways. His client Marcus Groff (Alan Ruck) asks him to take care of the paperwork on a new type of mobile phone he’s secretly discovered. Marcus Groff wants to tie up the Chinese inventor, Yu Baiyang (Qian Zheng), in a contract before word gets out, and Sam Chao cockily says he’ll arrange a cheap licensing deal. Sam Chao’s local assistant, Sun Fang (Zhu Zhu), isn’t so sure he’ll succeed – and next day Sam Chao finds the phone on sale all over the city. Roasted by his bosses in New York, Sam Chao tries to sort out the problem but eventually has to admit defeat and ask help from a famous local fixer, Awesome Wang (Geng Le), whom Donald Cafferty recommends. Meanwhile, Amanda Wilson, initially suspicious of Sam Chao’s attitude towards China, gradually falls for him as the plot thickens.
Best described as an American film with “strong Chinese characteristics”, Shanghai Calling 纽约客@上海 is very much a love letter by Chinese American writer-director Xia Wei 夏伟 [Daniel Hsia] to the city and country of his parents’ birth. Xia’s background is as a writer of US TV comedy and his first feature, a co-production between Mainland companies and US private investors, is extremely slick on both a production and a writing level. The dialogue has few of the awkwardnesses that often afflict such undertakings, and technically the movie captures Shanghai in a good-looking but unforced way, with clean photography by Cuba-born, Florida-raised Armando Salas (who already worked in China on the coming-of-age drama Sail Fish 旗鱼, 2008, and glossy rom-com Sophie’s Revenge 非常幸运, 2009, both by Jin Yimeng 金依萌 [Eva Jin]) and an easy score by Germany’s Klaus Badelt (whose China work includes The Promise 无极, 2005, and Shanghai 谍海风云, 2010).
On its surface the film is actually nothing new: an arrogant young Chinese American lawyer is posted from New York to Shanghai against his will and learns to adjust to cultural differences as well as discover his Chinese roots. But Xia keeps the tone light, makes it quite clear that his main character, Sam Chao, is not there to demonstrate any superiority of western ways, and creates likeable characters who aren’t just cultural stereotypes.
It says a lot for Xia’s research – and for the development of China’s own industry the past five years or so – that, apart from its theme and the presence of American actors, Shanghai Calling doesn’t seem much different from many purely Chinese romantic comedies. At a rom-com level, the characters are believable and develop in interesting ways, and the locals are no more stereotypical than the Americans. The film doesn’t have the more grounded realism of, say, the charming cross-cultural romance Lao Wai 老外 (2010, aka Foreigner), by French director Fabien Gaillard 高飞, also set in Shanghai, but then it doesn’t pretend to be portraying the same universe. Even though the audience is asked to believe that Sam (a Chinese American) has never eaten a steamed bun or drunk a cup of Chinese tea, hasn’t researched business-card etiquette and can’t even read a simple map, even these foreigner-in-China cliches are entertainingly woven into the script and not made the main focus of the movie.
The biggest surprise is the performance of (part-)Korean American actor-model Daniel Henney, who’s convincing as a hard-driven Chinese American and shows better comic timing than in his feature debut, the South Korean rom-com Seducing Mr. Perfect Mr. 로빈 꼬시기 (2006). Other performances are also believable and acutely written: especially US TV actress Eliza Coupe as a China-lover who thinks Sam is just a smooth-talking carpetbagger, plus US veteran Bill Paxton as a longtime resident who’s fallen for Shanghai, and Zhu Zhu 朱珠 (from rom-com What Women Want 我知女人心, 2011) as Sam’s local assistant with a double life. Though the film shows Xia’s American origins in the more conventionally romantic middle section, Shanghai Calling ends up – partly thanks to the voiceover and drily witty performance by actor Geng Le 耿乐 – as very Chinese in its heart.
Presented by China Film (CN), Americatown (US), Huaying (Tianjin) Film & TV Investment (CN).
Script: Xia Wei [Daniel Hsia]. Photography: Armando Salas. Editing: Pamela Marsh. Music: Klaus Badelt, Christopher Carmichael. Production design: Yu Baiyang. Art direction: Wang Zhijian. Costume design: Wang Haiyan. Sound: Cloud Wang, Christopher Sheldon, Yagmur Kaplan, Jeff Pitts.
Cast: Daniel Henney (Sam Chao), Eliza Coupe (Amanda Wilson), Geng Le (Awesome Wang), Zhu Zhu (Sun Fang, Sam’s assistant), Alan Ruck (Marcus Groff), Bill Paxton (Donald Cafferty), Sean Gallagher (Brad), Bill Marcus (Pritchard), John Paul Lopez (Cohen), Tang Ying (maid), Wang Yong (taxi driver), Lu Cai (Guang), Long Shen Dao (reggae band), Wu Yanyan (Natalie), Arran Hawkins (Chase, Englishman at party), Wang Zhongxin [Kara Wang] (Esther Wu), Gillian Renee Rexach (Katie, Amanda Wilson’s daughter), Jin Yimeng [Eva Jin] (hostess), Yu Meng (Penney), Zhang Yiru (Sun Fang’s mother), Qian Zuoguo (Sun Fang’s grandmother), Gao Jingwu (Sun Fang’s father), Jesse Huang (Lin), Charles Mayor (Jensen), Nathan “Flutebox” Lee (flute player), Zhu Qingyang [Frank Zhu] (deliveryman), Jim Bennett (Jensen’s KTV friend), Christopher Ligar (Phillip), Yang Zixuan, Wang Yun (masseuses), James Rice (American businessman), Shane P. Zhang (coffee monk), Qian Zheng (Yu Baiyang), Christine Françoise (Georgia), Zhu Shimao.
Premiere: Newport Beach Film Festival (Closing Film), 3 May 2012.
Release: China, 10 Aug 2012; US, 8 Feb 2013.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 19 Jun 2012.)