China is a pretty big country, but for many Westerners their exposure to it is limited to martial arts movies and stories about child labor in the service of iPhone manufacturing. And while factory kids do in fact use tai-chi against unscrupulous gangsters on a near daily basis there’s so much more to modern day China than hand-to-hand combat and questionable labor practices.
This is especially true in China’s most populous and advanced city, Shanghai.
Sam (Daniel Henney) is a corporate lawyer dispatched by his bosses to handle business in Shanghai for a few months, but while he’s of Chinese descent he’s never stepped foot out of NYC. He accepts the assignment in his bid for an upcoming partner position, but he’s going to be counting the days. He’s met at the airport by Amanda (Eliza Coupe), a relocation specialist and single mom who introduces him to the city’s ex-pat community in Americatown (the Chinese version of Chinatown). Despite the help Sam manages to quickly find himself in dire straits as his failure to accept local customs leads to both professional and personal troubles.
“You don’t come to China to meet white girls!”
Sam loosely befriends a few fellow Americans, including Donald (Bill Paxton) and Brad (Sean Gallagher). The former has been in the city for years and is now the mayor of Americatown while the latter is a recent transplant who had the misfortune of arriving after it became common knowledge that American men coming to “teach English” are actually there to screw Chinese women.
He also takes on an American client named Marcus Groff (Alan Ruck) whose latest legal needs lead to a mistake that threatens Sam’s career. He’s forced to turn to his new friends, his assistant Fang Fang (Zhu Zhu) and the improbably-named investigator Awesome Wang (Geng Le, who also narrates the beginning and end of the film) to turn his fortunes around.
Writer/director Daniel Hsia makes his feature debut with Shanghai Calling, and on the surface at least he delivers an extremely simple romantic comedy of manners that never manages to wow. Sam’s culture clashes are somewhat obvious and occasionally ring false for such a supposedly business-savvy character, and the plot rarely surprises on its way to an inevitable conclusion. Some of the side characters’ stories threaten to steal viewers’ interest as we pretty much know what will happen on both the work and play side of Sam’s story.
But while that story feels basic and somewhat generic in its “fish out of water” framework, the movie still manages to be damn charming for a couple reasons. First is the cast’s charisma and the casual sense of fun they emit. There are some legitimate laughs in Hsia’s script and folks like Coupe, Gallagher, and Le nail their delivery. Some of the situational comedy works beautifully too, including a restaurant meeting between Sam and Wang where other customers keep getting seated at their table. There’s also some attractive chemistry here between Henney and Coupe that lends itself well to the romance.
Just as important though is the city of Shanghai itself. Hsia has captured this giant Chinese metropolis in a state we’ve rarely seen. It’s simply a beautiful city with a real sense of purpose. The characters have duels of morality, but instead of highlighting the city’s pollution or over-population we’re shown how bright, modern, and vibrant of a place it really is. The film is filled with postcard-worthy shots of Shanghai’s breathtaking skyline, and it truly makes a case for a visit. Hsia is a visitor too, but he shows a real affection for the place and the people.
Shanghai Calling is an obvious movie that checks all the boxes when it comes to rom-coms and “fish out of water” tales, but it still rises above the expected to charm viewers with its charismatic and endearing cast, warm humor and fable-like look at a magical city most of us will never get the chance to see in real life.
The Upside: Finds humor in situations and dialogue; visual love letter to Shanghai; fun cast; Eliza Coupe and Zhu Zhu are fun, talented and damn pretty.
The Downside: Romance and story basics feel predictable and light.
On the Side: Daniel Hsia is a first generation Chinese-American whose own parents emigrated from Shanghai.
Shanghai Calling begins a limited theatrical release today before expanding and hitting OnDemand on February 12th.