Once “Shanghai Calling” calms down, this fish-out-of-water comedy turns out to be an amiably shaggy-dog flick. But oh, those early scenes in which writer-director Daniel Hsia gilds the lily with elaborate graphics and literalizes emotions with green screen effects. Eventually, Hsia relaxes and stops feeling the need to use up every bit of his first feature film’s budget, and that’s when the performances and plot move to the forefront.
Ambitious New York City lawyer Sam (Daniel Henney) finds himself transferred to Shanghai to open his firm’s new office there—the assumption being that he’d be the most comfortable doing so, since he’s Chinese American. But even though he’ll only be in China for three months, Sam is definitely not happy about leaving America behind to travel to a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language. Even relocation specialist Amanda (Eliza Coupe) can’t assuage his tense anger, which doesn’t dissipate when Sam makes a mistake with his first client that could cost him his job.
The charm of “Shanghai Calling,” which is a slight but enjoyable feature film debut by Hsia, is both in its reversal of the usual culture clash comedy plot (he’s Asian but he doesn’t fit in in China!) and its relaxed, confident performers. Coupe, such a delicious delight as the uptight Jane on TV’s “Happy Endings,” here reveals that her comedic instinct survives in a less stylized setting, and Henney is so charming and dapper that he makes Sam’s borderline bipolar personality seem almost normal. One moment Sam is charming Amanda’s shy daughter, then the next he’s accusing his assistant of flirting with him for a life in the U.S. We’re supposed to accept this behavior as indicative of Manhattan lawyers, but Sam’s insistence on alienating everyone who speaks English seems almost masochistic.
The crux of the film revolves around Sam’s efforts to shut down his client’s competitor using every means at his disposal, but mostly by teaming up with the English-speaking ex-pat community who populate Shanghai’s Americatown. A tentative romance bubbles up between Amanda and Sam, of course, but Hsia doesn’t push and the result is that the duo’s mandatory burgeoning relationship feels organic. If “Shanghai Calling” never fulfills the promise of its clever premise, it is nonetheless the announcement of a director and a leading man to watch.
Critic’s Score: B
Directed by Daniel Hsia
Cast by PoPing AuYeung, Leslie Woo
Starring Daniel Henney, Eliza Coupe, Bill Paxton