Orient Express: In Shanghai Calling, An Expat Sheds His Empire State Of Mind In A Smart, Stylish Coming-of-age Story

Bill Paxton in Shanghai Calling.

Bill Paxton in Shanghai Calling.

With binoculars trained on revising the immigration laws in Obama’s next four years, the new focus is on China. Shanghai Calling is an interesting U.S.-Chinese co-production filled with beautiful locations and colorful characters that reverses the trend. This time, the ocean is still crowded with immigrants heading for a foreign country seeking more pay, better jobs and an improved quality of life. But now the immigrants are Americans, and their destination is China.

Written and directed with flair by Daniel Hsia, this refreshing look at a cosmopolitan Shanghai we’ve never seen before centers on Sam Chao (played with warmth, confusion and humor by the charismatic Daniel Henney), a smart New York lawyer—handsome, single and on the eve of his 30th birthday—who finds himself reluctantly dispatched to modern-day Shanghai for a three-month assignment to mastermind a licensing deal involving a miraculous new touchpad smartphone that will bring his firm a billion-dollar income. From the minute he steps off the jetway, Sam is in a head-on collision with the culture, food, traffic jams, strange business customs and advanced technology of a country that is far from the exotic wonderland of old Hollywood movies. Sam may be Chinese-American, but he can’t speak one word of Chinese, and he’s never been to China in his life. In fact, he’s never been above 79th Street. Despite the help of a clever legal assistant named Fang Fang (Zhu Zhu) and a pretty blond expatriate single mom named Amanda (Eliza Coupe), a relocation expert hired to settle him into a beautiful glass apartment building still under construction, Sam is prepared for the worst. But the first thing he learns is that instead of a hardship post for failures and outcasts, sophisticated Shanghai is a glittering new gold-key outpost for bankers, executives, engineers, product manufacturers and other U.S. businessmen lured to a new frontier to get rich quick. Think California Gold Rush with chopsticks.

Progress is always accompanied by inventive new crimes, and the Chinese are particularly adept at working every angle. Sam’s expertise in copyrights, trademarks and patents seals his client’s deal immediately, but before you can say “pass the fried rice,” the mobile invention is stolen, duplicated and on the street selling out in mass production. It’s a snafu that almost costs him his job, delays his stay in Asia indefinitely and plunges him into frustration and stress. The movie follows its hero through a labyrinth of ill-advised attempts to fix his mistakes with the help of Fang Fang, the straitlaced law student who works a second job as a waitress in a cocktail lounge, a shady problem-solver named Awesome Wang (played by Chinese comic Geng Le), a horny American English teacher (Sean Gallagher) and an American jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur (the always-reliable Bill Paxton), who owns everything from a bar to a fried chicken franchise. Meanwhile, director Mr. Hsia takes the viewer on a guided tour of Shanghai’s out-of-the-way expatriate hangouts, from karaoke and tapas bars to reflexology parlors and neon-lit floating barges. There’s even an American section of the city called Americatown, the foreign equivalent to our Chinatown, where the mayor (also Mr. Paxton) is a carpetbagger who is an expert in trade subsidies. In addition to providing a crash course in the unique strategies of American-Chinese diplomatic relations (you’d better read up before you go there), Shanghai Calling introduces more crooks than a three-card-monte racket on Wall Street.

It is said that Shanghai changes constantly. The Chinese-American lawyer must either learn to change with it or admit defeat. The half-Korean actor-model Daniel Henney (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) surmounts even the occasional cliché with so much appeal that viewers will find it inviting and adventurous to change along with him. The ensemble cast of eccentric character actors is natural and without contrivance. The camera work is beautiful, and the script is mostly crisp even though the spoken English without subtitles is sometimes as confusing as the Mandarin. As the narrative builds, the movie shows how the harassed and impatient Chinese-American finds tolerance, acceptance of others, inner salvation and love. A lot for one movie to negotiate, not always successfully, but the enjoyment factor is obvious.

rreed@observer.com

SHANGHAI CALLING

Running Time 98 minutes

Written and Directed by Daniel Hsia

Starring Daniel Henney, Eliza Coupe and Bill Paxton