“Shanghai Calling”, from writer/director Daniel Hsia is a play it by the books “classic fish out of water” romantic comedy. It stars Daniel Henney, who we last saw in “X-men Origins: Wolverine” as Sam Chao, an ambitious Manhattan attorney sent to Shanghai to start a new branch office for his big powerful law firm. Things fall apart quickly though, as he quickly digs himself a hole by refusing to adapt to the customs of his new location.
The film is filled with an excellent international cast: Eliza Coupe, Alan Ruck and Bill Paxton lead the ex-pat Americans in Shanghai. Zhu Zhu (“What Women Want”) and Geng Le (“Desires of the Heart”) round out the Chinese characters.
The social and cultural faux pas are so stereotypical that to be honest, this movie could have been “insert foreign country here” Calling. Sam tries to give directions to a taxi driver, while the driver tries to explain that he’s already at his destination and doesn’t need a taxi. For all the effort made to film in Shanghai, we don’t get any sense of the city. The sites, food and people are all glossed over, making the setting a generic city in Asia. They could have saved a lot of money with some stock overhead shots of Shanghai and filmed the movie in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
I really wanted to like this film, but everything was so predictable, making it a long sitting, since you already knew what going to happen. As far as the comedy goes, I may have chuckled – once. The slight twist and definitely something that is completely wasted is that Sam is a Chinese (American) going back to China. This angle is really left undeveloped, or even ignored, though it’s an statement made early in the first act – Sam tries to get out of going to China by saying that he just looks Chinese, but he’s not the man for the job since he knows nothing about China. There was a treasure trove of material to mine – what it means to be Chinese, what it means to be American and the conflict of being caught in the middle. Because none of this was addressed, Sam Chao might as well have been Sam Smith.
The actors all do serviceable jobs trying to carry this thing past movie of the week status. Daniel Henney is decent, though he does seem to do a bit more modeling than acting. He makes some attempts at physical comedy that is completely forced and out of place. Eliza Coupe is actually very engaging as the love interest. Her character Amanda is the relocation expert hired to get Sam situated in Shanghai. She’s a smart, vulnerable and very hot blonde who is trying to make it on her own in China. Can you make it any easier to fall in love with her? I would talk about the Asian actors, but they are relegated to either dutiful children or alleged intellectual pirates who turn out to be just honorable small businessmen trying to make it in the big bad world. Seems like a few concessions were made to get permission to film in Shanghai.
Although the film ultimately doesn’t deliver a winner, this is an above average first outing for a writer/director, but if you want to see a better movie that deals with love and deftly navigates East/West customs, try Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet.” In the end, Hsia’s background in writing for television really shows. All the characters are rendered quickly and in broad strokes. The by the numbers plot turns and third act wrap up feels like you’re watching one long pilot of “How I Met Your Mother” but without a Barney to give it some edge.
“Shanghai Calling” opens February 8 in San Francisco and February 15 in Los Angeles and New York.
Daniel Hsia (director) / Daniel Hsia (screenplay)
CAST: Daniel Henney … Sam
Eliza Coupe … Amanda
Bill Paxton … Donald
Alan Ruck … Marcus Groff
Geng Le … Awesome Wang
Zhu Zhu … Fang Fang