Dealing with race can be a touchy subject and often considered taboo depending on how the material is dealt with. Watching first time feature film writer/director Daniel Hsia’s Shanghai Calling it was refreshing to see a different take on the topic of culture shock. The film centers on Sam played by Daniel Henney (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) who is relocated to Shanghai, China by his firm to head up a new office. Their reasoning behind the decision is because Sam is a young up and comer, smart, motivated and Chinese…..but not really. Sam is of Chinese descent but that’s about it; he doesn’t speak the language, know the culture, and the farthest he’s been from home is just above 79th St. With the tease of a possible partnership position Sam packs up and heads off to “the new land of opportunity” Shanghai.
Upon his arrival he is met by Amanda, played by Eliza Coupe (Happy Endings), who is a relocation specialist. Much to Sam’s surprise she is an American woman who speaks Mandarin. She’s responsible in easing Sam’s transition into his new home city and introduces him to a local community known as Americatown; equivalent to New York’s Chinatown but the other way around. There Sam meets Donald played by Bill Paxton who is a successful executive for a chain of fried chicken restaurants and also the owner of a American themed bar named Red, White & Brew. Sam’s main obstacle in the film is dealing with his client Marcus Groff, played by Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Spin City). Sam must close a deal between Groff and a local tech designer who has created a new type of cell phone technology.
Daniel Henney is a real pleasure to watch on screen. It is rare to see the main role in an American film played by an actor of Asian descent. He is very natural in the role and his comedic timing is spot on. What I really enjoyed about the film was that it was not simply about an American coming over and doing his job. The film showcases the different layers associated with living in Shanghai. There isn’t a real Americatown but from what I’ve read there might as well be as there are different cultures that huddle together and make it there own much like in New York City. Zhu Zhu’s (The Man with the Iron Fists) character Fang Fang shows how close family is to those in China as she lives with her parents, uncle and grandmother. It is also highlighted how important family is when a suitor for Fang Fang doesn’t try to impress her but instead her family members with a tapas inspired dinner. Her character also showcases how women in Shanghai are not that different from the narcissistic, shallow women here in the states as Fang Fang buys name brand products just to fit into the business world.
Daniel Hsia has done a fine job in his writing as the material was light, funny but still had a grasp on cultural elements that were important for Hsia to depict. Situations with the cab driver, live in maid and flashbacks of Awesome Wang had me laughing out loud… I mean really, there’s a character named Awesome Wang, just reading it and I’m giggling again. Credit should also be given to cinematographer Armando Salas as the film looks great and gives Shanghai a special feel as if anything is possible. On top of these elements the cast Hsia was given is top notch; their relationships with each other felt natural, organic and they gelled perfectly with each other. As I mentioned Henney is the standout in the film and I hope this opens the door for other ethnicities to get main starring roles in America cinema. One last note, as much as this is a story of a fish out of water it also shows that regardless of how far one is, how different things may be, that one can always make the most of it and in this case gain a lot more than what they went in with.
3 out of 5