In U.S.-Chinese co-production “Shanghai Calling,” a Chinese-American lawyer’s reluctant job transfer to Shanghai sets off a surprise-strewn homecoming that’s like an orphan discovering his birth parents are rock stars when he thought they’d be beggars. Helmer-scribe Daniel Hsia, himself Chinese-American, wittily subverts racial cliches in this sociocultural comedy of manners, even as he can’t help replacing them with a few new stereotypes. Yet he makes the city look so irresistibly chic and cosmopolitan, and devises scenarios of such beguiling humor, that the pic will ring true for internationally minded auds. Asian-American fests and limited Chinese theatrical beckon.
Go-getting New York lawyer Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) who’s proud he’s “never been above 79th Avenue” and describes himself as only “technically” Chinese, is transferred to Shanghai for a three-month stint. Bracing himself for a hardship posting, he is almost peeved to be proven wrong by “relocation specialist” and eventual love-interest Amanda Wilson (Eliza Coupe), who not only furnishes him with a six-star luxury apartment complete with tiger-mother housekeeper, but shows him Shanghai’s glittering surfaces and can-do spirit, with a dash of shrewd insight into current Sino-American relations.
At work, Sam botches a smartphone touchpad licensing deal for his client Marcus Groff (Alan Ruck). His misguided efforts to fix the problem lead him to cross paths with a gaggle of characters, including his personal assistant Fangfang (Zhu Zhu), who lives a double life; troubleshooter-cum-journo Awesome Wang (comedian Geng Le); Amcham president and fast food entrepreneur Donald Cafferty (Bill Paxton); and Brad (Sean Gallagher), an English teacher and lounge lizard with proverbial yellow fever. Although the characters initially are drawn in broad strokes, Sam’s gradual discovery of more sides to them than his hasty first impressions suggest, fuels dramatic interest and tension.
The most affecting example is Cafferty, whose blustering pride as a carpetbagger is transcended by his eventual graceful exit as the rules of the game change with the times. Indeed, the people depicted are inseparable from the metropolis itself, their eccentricities an advertisement for Shanghai as a magnet for all colors and stripes, just as their chronic multitasking symptomizes its hyperactivity and impatience to get ahead.
Hsia’s experience as an American TV scribe is applied to a fizzy, sure-footed screenplay that weaves credible, uncontrived connections between an ensemble of roles, which seldom become overshadowed by the profusion of plots and gags. Hsia’s background not only enables him to devise some sharp-tongued bilingual dialogue and culture-clash observations like Sam’s knee-jerk desire to sue everyone or his privacy issues in a packed restaurant, but lets the helmer transcend those cliches to portray Chinese as sharing the same stresses and aspirations as Americans.
American-born half-Korean Henney (“Seducing Mr. Perfect,” “X-men Origins: Wolverine”) , who’s cultivated a career as a model and thesp in Korean TV and film, has the Euro-Asian looks and confident swagger to accentuate Sam’s outsider status. He’s also put behind his heartthrob image, and appears appropriately obnoxious at first as a blinkered, entitled expat. The screenplay deftly persuades auds to warm to him through the camaraderie he strikes up with Amanda’s daughter Katie (Gillian Rexach), whose predicament mirrors his own childhood, prompting him to consider why he strains to dissociate himself from his Chinese roots.
Sam’s nicely percolating romance with Amanda not only adds a bit of heart to the pic’s largely comical proceedings, but her willingness to embrace a foreign country wholeheartedly when things don’t work out for her in her own sets an example for Sam’s gradual acclimatization. It is to the film’s credit that despite its Capra-esque ending and slightly ingratiating representation of all mainlanders as uniformly upstanding and well-intentioned, Sam never becomes a “born-again Chinese.”
Other perfs by the multinational cast are likable if superficial. Standouts are Coupe and Zhu Zhu, who express the intertwined career and dating frustrations of urban women in a no-nonsense, yet affecting manner.
Tech credits are pro, in a generically American style, though locations captured are impressively varied.