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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.