Shanghai Calling tries to defy movie cliches

Updated: 2013-03-22 11:24

By Derek Bosko in New York (China Daily)

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 Shanghai Calling tries to defy movie cliches

A scene from Shanghai Calling. Provided to China Daily

Billed as a fish-out of-water romantic comedy, Shanghai Calling reconfigures the cinematic trope of the uprooted foreigner "going native" in his newly adopted country.

The movie raises a number of racial, social and national-identity questions, but these are subsumed by the feel-good story of a disconnected Chinese-American learning of his roots through the filter of Shanghai's Western expat community, which is called "Americatown" in the film.

The film's protagonist, Sam Chao (played by Daniel Henney), is a Chinese-American lawyer in New York who reluctantly accepts a transfer to Shanghai that all but guarantees a rise to partner at his firm. He soon finds his expertise in intellectual-property law doesn't prove too useful in today's China, however.

Shanghai Calling attempts to tackle a litany of issues in US-Chinese relations, including through a plot device involving intellectual property and counterfeit goods, but the treatment is superficial. Instead, the audience is left with a morality tale that seems more interested in highlighting cultural misunderstanding and emphasizing comfortable similarities while ignoring real differences. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the movie comes off more as a slick commercial for Shanghai than an exploration of culture shock or cultural relativism.

The underlying concern of cultural identity in Shanghai Calling brings to mind the movie epics Lawrence of Arabia and Avatar, both of which explore a foreigner's absorption into an exotic, unfamiliar land. Sam is a hyper-driven, Ivy League alpha male with little depth; we know of his Chinese identity mainly through his physical attributes and the movie's reminders that he can't speak the language of his ancestors.

The aforementioned earlier movies feature a white male hero sent far away to do the bidding of his empiric homeland (T.E. Lawrence on behalf of Britain during World War I, "Avatar's" fictional Jake Sully in a futuristic corporatized US government). Ultimately, both characters defect to the side of the colonized people - respectively, an Arab and an alien Na'vi (or Avatar thereof) - he was supposed to conquer.

Some critics cry foul at the going-native trope in movies as thinly veiled romanticization of the Kiplingesque notion of the white man's burden, wherein the colonized people are portrayed as more virtuous than their white conquerors but still rely on their newly transformed "native" to solve some problem.

As a whole, Shanghai Calling is more sensitive to cultural differences than 1962's Lawrence of Arabia and less concerned with environmental and other ravages of unfettered capitalism than Avatar. The newer movie, however, seems to want to soften its "native" approach by casting as the male lead the Michigan-born Henney, whose mother is Korean. Another device was to make Sam's love interest a Midwestern white woman named Amanda (Eliza Coupe) who has assimilated into Chinese culture and works as a "relocation specialist", helping foreigners adjust to life in Shanghai. In this case, the foreigner doesn't fall for a "native" but rather another expatriate who is also culturally American.

Of course, it's up to audiences to decide whether Shanghai Calling succeeds in overcoming cinematic stereotypes by, among other things, casting a half-Asian actor as a lead character who seduces his white female counterpart or if that was a marketing move to enhance its global appeal.

After a recent screening of the 2012 movie at the Asia Society in New York, director Daniel Hsia told an audience member that for Sam, "the American-ness of the character was more important than anything else".

Also, the crew of Shanghai Calling, an independent, US-Chinese co-production, wanted to make a movie with worldwide appeal.

Producer Janet Yang said during the Q-and-A with Hsia that "there was some pressure initially to hire an actor that's a big name in China" but ultimately Henney's attractiveness put those arguments to rest.

"We thought maybe they wouldn't like this choice of ours because of, you know, economic reasons, but they took one look at his picture and said 'OK' - they were in total agreement with us," Yang said of her return trip to China after Henney had been chosen to play Sam.

(China Daily 03/22/2013 page11)