Daniel Henney is an actor with a lot of charisma. The weight of Shanghai Calling rests largely on his shoulders and, mostly, he’s able to support it.
Shanghai Calling is a light comedy/drama. It’s a TV-quality feature about culture clash. Actually, the collision is more like an inadvertent bump than a “clash.” It all starts with a promotion.
How It’s Done Here
Sam (Henney) is an attorney being promoted at his New York law firm. But first he has to prove himself by handling a tricky client in Shanghai. Sam, born and bred in the U.S., is ethnically Chinese so his bosses assume he’s the right man for the job. It’s a setup that almost parallels the inspired Local Hero from 1984. There are probably twenty minutes of culture-clash jokes as Sam makes his way to Shanghai.
Amanda (Eliza Coupe) is a relocation specialist. She is in charge of getting Sam settled and oriented. Sam also meets his law-firm assistants (including Zhu Zhu), his American expatriate client (Alan Ruck), and members of the American expat community including fried-chicken entrepreneur Donald Cafferty (Bill Paxton). Sam’s first experience with his client turns out to be a mistake, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to correct it. That allows for the introduction of another friend, a private investigator named Awesome Wang (Geng Le) who can help Sam track down key people for his client’s case.
The formulaic screenplay also has subplots to do with Donald’s run for mayor of Americatown, with the office romances in Sam’s firm, and with Sam’s increasingly involved relationship with Amanda and her daughter. Interestingly, Amanda’s blond-haired daughter is in the same boat as Sam. She too has the “wrong” skin color and is assumed to be foreign, when in fact she is knows no other country.
Sometimes the worst festival films are the ones that want to be mainstream, but simply don’t have the budget to break through. Shanghai Calling is such a film — it has no art-film ambitions, and most of the conflicts and themes are breezy and light. I imagine it is making the festival rounds because it doesn’t have the A-list cast or meaty depth to attract distribution.
But Shanghai Calling has enough cultural observations to keep it from being too shallow or vapid (“we call ourselves expatriates but really we’re immigrants”). And Henney’s charisma — humble on the inside but confident on the outside — really does help keep the movie watchable. Perhaps that’s damning the movie with faint praise, and so be it. Shanghai Calling deserves a little praise.
If you’re the kind of patron who feels lost at a film festival, and you just want something familiar, Shanghai is calling.