AAIFF 2012 | Shanghai Calling Review

Posted by Sadiya Ansari & filed under AAIFF, Film Festival.

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Photo courtesy of shanghaicalling.com

New Yorkers have a reputation of being pretty tough city folk—so plant them in any other big city and they are bound to thrive, right?

Our hero in Shanghai Calling, Sam Chao played by Daniel Henney, shows us this isn’t exactly true. The cocky jerk from the uppity Manhattan law firm says yes to an assignment in Shanghai to bring him closer to his ultimate prize – becoming a partner at the firm. He isn’t looking forward to it, but you get the feeling there isn’t much Sam thinks he can’t handle.

The rest of the film is a series of hilarious events showing him how incredibly wrong he was about his capabilities. Not as a lawyer but as a cultural navigator.

As Sam points out to his bosses early in the film he looks Chinese but isn’t really China-travel-ready-Chinese. And yet, even after recognizing this Sam goes to China and expects things to be done the American way. He demands his relocation specialist, Amanda played by Eliza Coupe, to order construction in his condo to cease lest it bother him. He ignores his whip-smart assistant, Fang Fang played by Zhu Zhu, when she tries to give him advice on how things work in China. And he generally acts like an entitled American bull — until he realizes that isn’t really going to work in China.

The success story Sam built in his mind begins to unravel as his star client’s product which he supposedly had an exclusive license for is being mass-produced faster than Sam could ever even fathom. Untangling himself out of this mess, he is fortunate to have the help of “Americatown mayor” played by Bill Paxton, Fang Fang, Amanda and of course the mysterious investigative journalist “Awesome Wang” played by Geng Le.

Photo courtesy of shanghaicalling.com

The film is often described as a romantic-comedy but I really didn’t see it that way – I just saw it as a comedy with a dash of romance between Sam and Amanda. The storyline itself was revealing about American expectations of China and the reality that exists in Shanghai — but my favourite part was watching for clues that exposed Sam’s character.

Sam’s primary identity as American is clear, which I think is a very relatable point for many second generation Americans and Canadians. He didn’t come to China to date Chinese girls like his white American friend. He didn’t speak the language and wasn’t trying to learn.

Daniel Hsia, the writer and director of the film, did this cleverly but in his words “didn’t want to hit audiences over the head.” Over the course of the film, Hsia normalizes Shanghai for viewers rather than exoticizing it. And of course provides classic comedic moments even my parents would love like having a foe flee from Sam on bike only to ride into a pile of garbage.

This isn’t slapstick comedy. It will have you laugh out loud at a few points but not the whole way through. The real beauty of this film is in the nuanced scenes that are likely to incite a knowing smile for those of you that are the hyphenated type upon seeing little moments you experience so often finally reflected in film.

Shanghai Calling is opening the 2012 Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) on July 25 and will play again on Saturday, July 28.

The film has already received awards and praise at many film fests, including the Shanghai Intentional Film Festival. Janet Yang, the film’s producer, received the 2012 Asian American Media Award.

For more on the film and the process of creating it, check out my interview with filmmaker Daniel Hsia. And of course, watch for more coverage of the AAIFF 2012 which began July 25 in New York City.

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