Shanghai Calling: A Love Letter to Expats

I saw the trailer for this film about a month before it started touring film festivals with screenings in Los Angeles and throughout the US. It seemed like a great movie and had more than a inkling that it might be a film to watch out for. Unfortunately it never got the wide release that I was hoping for and watching it in theaters never happened. What did happen was that I stumbled on it one night when I was scrolling through the Amazon Instant video library.

“Shanghai Calling” is writer/director Daniel Hsa’s love letter to expats. The question is, what about everyone else?

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What “Shanghai Calling” is, at its core, is a story about the new age of immigration. Where once citizens from foreign lands flocked to the US and Europe for hopes of better lives and opportunity, the opposite is true today. With the advancement of technology the world has only gotten smaller and brought with it new opportunities in far off lands. Enter Sam (Daniel Henney), our average everyday American of Chinese descent.

Where the Hell Am I?

Sam is a lawyer, what kind of lawyer I have no idea. Financial, business, or intellectual copyright I’m sure but Sam is on cloud nine. He’s just won a large case and at the opening of our story he’s expecting great things from his bosses. Instead he gets saddled with a new assignment, Shanghai. The firm needs a man in China and our man Sam’s the obvious choice. At least if you ignore the fact that he’s completely ignorant to the culture, language, and traditions of his ancestry. So off he goes, by choice or otherwise to the land of his parents. Cue hi-jinks.

Daniel Henney is great as the dopey over-cocky Sam who is balanced by his assistant Fang Fang (played by actress Zhu Zhu) and relocation assistant Amanda (Eliza Coupe). Bill Paxton (Pullman? No Paxton) as Donald is great but his character isn’t integral to the story which is unfortunate because the little you get to see of him isn’t bad. The only stand out annoyance is Brad (Sean Gallagher) as the quintessential foreign English teacher with yellow-fever. It isn’t that he’s a bad actor, it’s that the character is one-dimensional and has no redeeming qualities.

Just Makin CopiesGiven that this isn’t a story covered by many films, there isn’t much room for repetition. Still, we have the regular character tropes but those are easily overlooked in favor of the plot. At its best, the movie can be described as a series of predictable events and at its worst it recycles tropes that are seen all too often in B-movies. In spite of this, the story wins out and makes “Shanghai Calling” something truly worth watching. I’d go into more detail but it’ll be more fun to watch what happens rather than have me narrate it through text, trust me.

Whereas Tokyo was almost a silent but ever present character in “Lost in Translation”, “Shanghai Calling” casts the shadow of Chinese culture as a nearly tangible figure throughout the movie. It’s an interesting aspect of the story to watch unveil itself not just by the Chinese actors but the American ones as well.

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I enjoyed this film immensely and so did my girlfriend. I’d been watching the trailers wondering if it might be able to pull a wider release but alas that never happened.  The only part that bothers me is the lack of background or explanation. I can read between the lines and see the jokes because I’m an expat. I’ve experienced almost everything that Sam goes through during the course of the film but not everyone can say the same. For people who haven’t had the chance to travel or don’t travel much, some of the references and jokes might be missed.

One note that hits sour is that the film is regrettably short. Clocking in at 1 hour and 40 minutes, the film misses more opportunities than I can count and relies on people having too much knowledge of Eastern culture. While the movie slow walks you through the introduction, there’s so much left unexplored. An extra 20 minutes would have done wonders to flesh out Amanda (the relocation specialist), Brad (the douche English teacher) or even Fang Fang whose side plot could be fleshed out into another movie altogether.

I’d recommend this movie to anyone whose parents or grandparents were immigrants and anyone who has spent any amount of time traveling abroad. The themes and references will resonate even if you haven’t spent time in Asia. It’s so close to being a classic film for Second Generations everywhere that it nearly makes it to reaching the status of “The Joy Luck Club”. But it, unfortunately, does falter and when it does it is noticeable. Due to that for everyone else, I’d highly recommend the film but it’s understandable if you’re skeptical. Still for those who decide not to make the jump, it’ll be an opportunity missed.

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