Korean American Daniel Henney stars in the Chinese American expat-identity comedy Shanghai Calling, opening today in a limited US engagement in LA, SF and NY as well as on pay-per-view cable channels.
Henney plays Sam Chao, a Chinese American Manhattan corporate attorney sent to Shanghai to secure the rights to a Chinese invention. Despite the fact that his parents are Chinese immigrants — or maybe because of that — Chao sees the assignment as an unwelcome digression from his American corporate-attorney dream of a fast-track New York partnership.
Chao’s willful and extreme disconnection from his Chinese heritage is one main fuel for the film’s comedy. The other is the peculiar type of arrogance found in Asian Americans who believe their mastery of American culture and an elite degree have allowed them to transcend their humanity. The irony becomes apparent with Chao’s discovery, upon arriving in China, that he is in fact something of a yokel in a business world whose center is rapidly shifting across the Pacific.
Fortunately, in comedies powered by the main character’s arrogance there’s usually a beautiful woman to help him get over himself and discover himself at the same time. Blonde Eliza Coupe (Scrubs) plays the Mandarin-fluent American who helps Chao reorient himself. Bill Paxton is the eccentric expat who shows Chao Shanghai’s layout and helps unravel some of its mysteries. Zhu Zhu plays Chao’s local assistant who helps provide some perspective about the mindset of people who didn’t grow up trying to be American.
The film is directed by Daniel Hsia whose Chinese American sensibility imbues every scene with the maddening but amusing contradictions that confound Asian Americans in the ancestral homeland. One of many is the habit of waiters automatically handing a Chinese menu to the illiterate Asian person and an English menu to the white person, no matter how fluent in the local dialect.