I’ve never been to Shanghai, but I’m sure if I did ever make it there, I’d be respectful and reverent about the new country and culture I was entering. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my humble upbringings, but mom and dad taught me that when you go to someone else’s house . . . you follow house rules.
I guess not everyone learns this lesson, least of whom Sam, a hot shot New York attorney who reluctantly transfers to Shanghai–just another stepping stone on the corporate ladder for his firm. At it’s core Shanghai Calling is a fish out of water story where Sam learns to adapt, then love, his new found home. The ironic part in all this . . . Sam is Chinese but doesn’t know a lick about his heritage. Hijinks ultimately ensue.
Sam comes to Shanghai and carries on as if he’s still in the United States when all the signs around him (literally and figuratively) point to the fact that he is in another world. During a business meeting early in the film, his secretary tries to give him advice on doing business in China but he brushes her off; thinking she’s trying to be contradictory rather than helpful. While I thought Daniel Henney was brilliantly douchey in the lead role; I thought that particular aspect of his character was a cliché played up to the extreme and detriment of the film. Time and again I found myself face palming every time he shot down helpful advice from his friends and co-workers in China. How could a guy so smart be so dumb?
Other gripes I had with the film stemmed from the logic of the film and the motivation of characters. At several points I wondered why certain things were going when there seemed to be a rather straightforward answer. Case in point is the main dilemma for Sam in the film, his client is losing business to a competitor who has seemingly violated his client’s exclusive agreement. Sam meets with the competitor and tells them that if they don’t stop that he’ll get an injunction to shut them down. Case closed right? Wrong. For the next 30-40 minutes a roundabout investigation is launched into said competitor when in the end, the injunction finally goes through. There were a few common sense points such as this that left me scratching my head.
That being said, I still had a fun time with Shanghai Calling. In fact, the movie was more of a comedy than I expected it to be. Most of the culture clashing jokes did land as they should have and I was rooting for Sam the entire time. Daniel Henney gives a pretty nice performance at Sam. I believed he was that ignorant foreigner and had a great sense of comedic timing. The rest of the acting corps in the film also turned in decent performances as well. While most of the cast will probably be relatively unknown to US audiences, two faces they will probably recognize are those of Bill Paxton (Twister, Apollo 13) who fits perfectly in the role as the mayor of “Americatown” and Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
For director Daniel Hsia, Shanghai Calling marks a charming outing for his first feature length film when you factor in managing the cast as well as shooting on location in Shanghai; and the movie’s got a great feel. Speaking of which, the city does feature prominently throughout the film and does get to shine as a character of its own. And herein lies another rub of the film. Are we to be entertained by the main character and his struggles? Or is the more important aspect Shanghai (and ultimately China and its culture) and the role it plays in the film? As a Chinese co-production certain story elements were changed in order for the film to receive Chinese funding and distribution, exactly how much remains to be seen. I can’t help but wonder though if some of the out of place moments in the film were due to these changes . . . and perhaps we’ll never know.
Not without its problems, on the whole Shanghai Calling is a fun romantic comedy drama of sorts that will definitely give you a few laughs and is a wonderful showcase of Shanghai and its culture. Will that be enough to call you?
Distribution for Shanghai Calling is currently in the works and could potentially be released sometime in 2013.
Rating 3/5 stars // NR // 100 minutes