Movies
2:01 am
Wed April 4, 2012

'Shanghai': A Rom-Com Look At Americans In China

Originally published on Wed April 4, 2012 1:47 pm

A growing number of American professionals have moved to China in the last decade to ride the economic boom. While much of the news coming out of the country is serious stuff — political repression, trade disputes, tainted food — for American expatriates, day-to-day life in China can be chaotic, exciting and often funny.

That experience is the subject of a romantic comedy that premieres in Southern California this spring. Shanghai Calling follows the misadventures of a hotshot Chinese-American lawyer who relocates from New York to Shanghai. Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) isn't exactly ready for the transition: He speaks no Chinese and has no clue how the country works, and soon after he arrives, he learns a product made by his biggest client is apparently being pirated all over town.

Intellectual property rights — or lack thereof — is just one of the issues played for laughs in this independent film that was made for less than $3 million. Another Shanghai quirk the film highlights is the city's blistering pace of change.

In one scene, a relocation agent shows Sam his new apartment. It's a luxury spread overlooking the river and seems perfect until the loud sound of a drill reveals construction hasn't quite finished on the building. Anyone who lives in Shanghai — whether Chinese or one of the tens of thousands of foreigners who call the city home — knows drilling is the city's inescapable soundtrack.

A Land Of Opportunity

The movie's American director, Daniel Hsia, is a former TV comedy writer whose parents were born in Shanghai. While many films about China are either historical costume dramas or kung-fu spectacles, Hsia says he wanted to make one that captured contemporary life in all its messy complexity.

"The majority of people in America have very little idea of what is actually happening in China," Hsia says. "At the same time, the majority of people in China have very little idea of what all these foreigners are doing in their country."

Chinese and English are both spoken in the film by a cast that features both Chinese and American actors. They include Hollywood veteran Bill Paxton, whose character recounts for Sam a rags-to-riches tale familiar in expat circles here.

"Let me tell you a story," Paxton's character says. "A while back, a fry cook in Louisville applies for the executive program at JFC. He was considered a joke. Then the company opened up shop in China. Nobody wanted to go. So he volunteered. Twenty years later, he's the third-highest-paid exec in the company — and the mayor of Americatown."

There is no "Americatown" in Shanghai, but there might as well be. Some expat communities are so insulated, you'd never know you were in China.

A Layered Look At Shanghai

The film also explores the lives of the ordinary Shanghainese. They include Fang Fang (Zhu Zhu), Sam's street-smart Chinese assistant who favors luxury brands. Sam catches her working a second job at a nightclub.

"My father's a construction worker," Fang explains. "Living in Shanghai is so much pressure; every woman with an office job has to have designer clothes and nice jewelry and Italian handbags, so I pretend to have wealthy parents and kept my other job just to pay for nice things."

In this nouveau riche city, where appearance can be everything, many people will relate.

Cast members saw the movie for the first time last week and say it nails life in Shanghai. But Arran Hawkins, who plays an English teacher in the film, wonders how it will resonate with people outside China.

"It's a fun film," he says, "but at the same time, some of the humor might be lost [on an outside audience] because they haven't experienced it firsthand."

Hsia hopes that for people who don't know China, Shanghai Calling will be the next best thing. The movie is scheduled to debut at film festivals in Los Angeles and Newport Beach in May; Hsia, who's seeking a distributor in the U.S., says he expects it to be released in China later this year.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Chinese do export a lot to the United States. Americans also export to China, and that includes exporting American talent. Young professionals move to China to ride its economic boom. Their sometimes chaotic lives are the subject of a new romantic comedy called "Shanghai Calling." It arrives on the U.S. film festival circuit next month. It's already been screened in Shanghai, where NPR's Frank Langfitt had a look.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHANGHAI CALLING")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's the new land of opportunity, Sam. This is going to be the best move you ever made.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Sam Chao is a hot-shot, Chinese-American lawyer assigned to Shanghai. But he speaks no Chinese and has no clue how the country works. Soon after he arrives, he learns a product made by his biggest client is apparently being pirated all over town.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHANGHAI CALLING")

DANIEL HENNEY: (As Sam) This is my client's phone. Somebody else is making them. How the hell did they get in the stores so fast?

SEAN GALLAGHER: (As Brad) Haven't you heard? The Chinese are really good at manufacturing, dude.

HENNEY: (As Sam) Brad, I need to get these phones off the street, ASAP. I need you to go to every store that is selling these phones and buy them up.

LANGFITT: Intellectual property rights - or lack thereof - is just one of the issues played for laughs in this independent film, which was made for less than $3 million dollars. Another is Shanghai's blistering pace of change.

In this scene, Sam, played by a Korean-American actor named Daniel Henney, is shown his new apartment by a relocation agent. It's a luxury spread overlooking the river. There's just one problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHANGHAI CALLING")

HENNEY: (as Sam) What the hell was that?

ELIZA COUPE: (as Amanda) Construction, but they're supposed to be finished by now.

HENNEY: (as Sam) Are you telling me this building is still being built?

COUPE: (as Amanda) Shanghai...

LANGFITT: Anyone in Shanghai - either Chinese or the tens of thousands of foreigners who call it home - knows drilling is the city's inescapable soundtrack.

DANIEL HSIA: My name is Daniel Hsia. I'm the writer-director of a film called "Shanghai Calling.""

LANGFITT: Hsia is an American and former TV comedy writer whose parents were born here. "Shanghai Calling" is his first movie, and he's looking for a U.S. distributor.

Many films about China are either historical costume dramas or kung-fu spectacles. Hsia said he wanted to make one that captured contemporary life in all its messy complexity.

HSIA: The majority of people in America have very little idea of what is actually happening in China. And at the same time, the majority of people in China have very little idea of what all these foreigners are doing in their country.

LANGFITT: The movie is in Chinese and English and features both Chinese and American actors. They include Hollywood veteran Bill Paxton, whose character recounts a rags-to-riches tale familiar in expatriate circles here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHANGHAI CALLING")

BILL PAXTON: (as Donald) Let me tell you a story. A while back, a fry cook from Louisville, he applies in an exec program at JFC. He got in. He was considered a joke. Then the company opened up shop in China. Nobody wanted to go. So he volunteered. Twenty years later, he's the third-highest paid exec in the company and the mayor of Americatown.

LANGFITT: There's no Americatown in Shanghai. But there might as well be. Some expat communities are so insulated, you'd never know you were in China.

The film also explores the lives of the ordinary Shanghainese. They include Fang Fang, Sam's street-smart Chinese assistant, who favors luxury brands. Then Sam catches her working a second job at a night club.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHANGHAI CALLING")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZHU ZHU: (as Fang Fang) My father's a construction worker. Living in Shanghai is so much pressure. Every woman with an office job has to have designer clothes and nice jewelries and Italian handbags, so I pretend to have wealthy parents and kept my other job just to pay for nice things.

LANGFITT: In this nouveau riche city where appearance can be everything, many people will relate.

Cast members saw the movie for the first time last week and say it nailed life here. But Arran Hawkins, who plays an English teacher in the film, wonders how it will resonate with people outside China.

ARRAN HAWKINS: It's fun film, but at the same time, maybe some of the humor might be lost because they haven't experienced it first hand.

LANGFITT: Daniel Hsia hopes that for people who don't know China, "Shanghai Calling" will be the next best thing. The movie is scheduled to debut at film festivals in Los Angeles and Newport Beach in May. And Hsia says he expects it to be released in China later this year.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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