As evidenced by the rich work of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke, the ways in which globalization manifests itself in Shanghai today are certainly ripe for deeply considered exploration. Daniel Hsia, the writer-director of Shanghai Calling, is, to put it mildly, no Jia. If you prefer your social commentary in the form of a glorified sitcom with broad humor and even broader caricatures, look no further.
To have any shot at taking Shanghai Calling seriously, one will, from the outset, have to suspend disbelief and swallow the almost unbelievable multicultural ignorance of its half-Asian, almost-30 protagonist, a corporate attorney named Sam Chao (Daniel Henney), and the obliviousness to the world outside his New York City bubble that leads to many instances of culture clash when his bosses send him to Shanghai for a few months on assignment. Even if we accept such a clueless character at face value, however, there’s the larger issue of whether we’re actually supposed to find this guy at all charming or even interesting enough to follow. Cinema, of course, is rife with sleazy antiheroes who compel attention in spite of their vices, but Hsia has conceived Sam so broadly, and Henney is such a handsome-faced blank as an actor that, when we see him angrily tell his (white) relocation specialist, Amanda (Eliza Coupe), to threaten construction workers in the floor above his lavish new apartment with lawsuits if they don’t stop working, he comes across as more bratty than anything else.
The film surrounding this character doesn’t offer much in the way of compensatory insights into its grand subject. Hsia, working with a wide frame, evinces a level of visual sophistication that every so often lends some freshness to the culture-clash humor: During a meeting between Sam and a journalist who goes by the name of “Awesome Wang” (Geng Le), he periodically cuts to overhead shots and the repeated intrusions of fellow ramen-eaters and pulls off a reasonably successful gag satirizing the differences between Eastern and Western dining habits. But there’s only so much that can be done with a script as rife with one-dimensional types and utterly predictable plot threads and character arcs as this one. Sitcom-level shtick abounds: Amanda’s daughter inexplicably refuses to speak English around the house except after Sam whispers something into her ear at one point; Sam meets an English-teacher friend (Sean Gallagher) who’s even more of an ugly American than he is, especially when it comes to objectifying Asian women; and, at a point where all hope seems lost for Sam, an elderly English-speaking Chinese man dressed in vaguely monk-like garb turns up in a café and drops cryptic but crucial pensées in the manner of Wilson from Home Improvement.
All of that is irritating enough, but Shanghai Calling doesn’t really edge on the offensive until its climax, set in a factory full of the kind of exploited and underpaid workers Mike Daisey recently tried, however problematically, to highlight in his now-infamous “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” monologue—and yet, instead of giving those workers any significant attention, we’re instead supposed to be on the side of this loathsome grade-A one-percenter? Certainly, Sam’s personal redemption and eventual embrace of Shanghai has little to do with any growing social consciousness, and much more to do with the utterly conventional romance that develops between him and Amanda. Where is Jia when you need him most?