A US-China co-production produced by US-China power player Janet Yang (Disney High School Musical: China, The Joy Luck Club), Shanghai Calling is writer/director Daniel Hsia's first feature film after writing for TV shows such as Psych and Andy Barker, P.I.
The romantic comedy follows Sam Chao (Daniel Henney), an attorney from Manhattan who is reluctantly sent to Shanghai to open up his company's satellite office. Although he is Chinese American -- and therefore his bosses assume he'll be a great cross-cultural intermediary -- Sam doesn't understand the language, is unfamiliar with the culture, can barely drink tea properly, and is a little bit too confident for his own good.
The real people in the know are the American expats in Shanghai -- Amanda (Eliza Coupe), Sam's relocation specialist; Donald (Bill Paxton), the "mayor of Americatown" who's been living abroad for two decades; Marcus (Alan Ruck), the billionaire businessman with a lucrative idea -- as well as the locals that Sam turns to when he ends up in a bind: Fang Fang (Zhu Zhu), the clever legal assistant, and "Awesome Wang" (Geng Le), the investigative journalist who, despite his cheesy moniker, turns out to be pretty awesome.
According to Hsia's Director's Statement, Shanghai Calling is his love letter to contemporary Shanghai, the city both his parents are from and the place Hsia spent numerous months traveling to research this story.
Hsia and Henney sit down to talk to Asia Pacific Arts after their Opening Night screening at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
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Interview with Daniel Hsia and Daniel Henney
May 11, 2012
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Camera and video edit by Craig Stubing
Asia Pacific Arts: [to Daniel Hsia] What inspired you to write the script for Shanghai Calling?
Daniel Hsia: A few years ago, I noticed that China was showing up a lot in the US newspapers. Every time I opened up the New York Times or watched CNN, there'd be all sorts of stories on China, having to do with economics, military, politics, and how China relates to the United States. At the same time, a good friend of mine from college decided he was going to move to China, and when he came back for reunions or weddings, he'd tell me hilarious stories about what it was like to be an American living as an immigrant in China.
I just thought these stories were fantastic, and I knew there was a way to make this a really entertaining story. So I went to China, did a bunch of research, talked to every American I could get a hold of, and after a couple weeks of wandering around Shanghai, the story came into my head.
APA: [to Daniel Henney] What attracted you to this story?
Daniel Henney: It's a beautifully written story, and I've always been a sucker for romantic comedies. Maybe I should not admit that. I'm going to lose my entire male fanbase. [laughs] But come on, let's be honest. All guys like rom-coms. There's some good ones, there's some bad ones, but this one is a good one.
And I've always wanted to attempt comedy. In Korea, where I've been working for the last seven years, I've always been more of the straight guy. I didn't have a chance to test my comedic skills, and I always thought I could do it. This script gave me that chance. Also, getting to work in Shanghai was a big deal. So it was a no-brainer, to be honest.
Photo by Rowena Aquino.
Hsia: When we were looking [to cast Henney], I kept looking for comedy films that he had done, and I couldn't really find very many of them. And the truth is, all of us behind the movie were really surprised -- pleasantly surprised -- by how funny Daniel is, how great his comedic timing is.
I don't know. I think it's not fair that because you're just so handsome--
Henney: [laughs] Yes.
Hsia: --that everybody just expects you to play the handsome guy. They never expect you to play the funny guy, huh?
Henney: [jokes] I've stayed up at night, thinking about that in my bed. "It's just not fair!"
Hsia: It's just not fair!
Henney: I knew it would happen. It just takes the right project. And I'm lucky that I had the chance in Korea to build whatever skills I've built, to get to the point to be able to play this part. Because maybe three years ago, I couldn't have done it. I think this was the right time.
APA: The story about a foreigner going into a new country is often done so badly in film. But you guys seem more savvy about it. What were some of the things that you wanted to highlight and some of the things that you wanted to avoid?
Hsia: When it comes to doing a fish-out-of-water story, especially about an American living abroad, there are a lot of clichés. The biggest cliché is: usually, it's some guy going in there, and all the jokes are about how he tries to speak the language, and he makes up words that go along with it. We would refer to that as a "Chinglish" thing: if a guy was going to China, he'd say "Hey, mushu this!" "Sweet and sour that."
I just didn't want to go there, because it's been overdone, and it's actually not funny.
Henney: That's what the problem is. That it's actually not funny.
Hsia: So we put effort in this movie to make sure to paint Sam as American as he could be. He wouldn't even try to speak any Chinese. At the same time, we wanted to make the foreigners that are there much savvier than Sam. They do know the language; they do know the culture.
At the same time, I didn't want to do a story about a guy going there and immediately falling in love with the foreign love interest, just because that's done a lot too.
Henney: I thought it was wonderful how you weaved the stories of Fang Fang's character and Amanda's character, because it does give the film a different color. Because you are kind of unsure throughout the film what is going to happen.
Hsia: In a lot of the films you see about Americans going abroad, you don't really get the sense of what the lives of the people who live in that country are like. We made a great effort to make the stories of the Chinese characters very authentic -- to make them sympathetic and to put them in the spotlight. And I think it really works. We've played it for a couple different audiences now -- one in Newport Beach and one [in LA] -- and they respond so well to the scenes that involve Fang Fang, who's a local Shanghainese. I'm really pleased that they're responding so well to the local Chinese story.
APA: Usually in these types of films, there are the obvious insiders and the obvious outsiders. But in this film, you switch the roles.
Hsia: During the writing process, I was thinking, what's the best fish-out-of-water story? The best fish-out-of-water is a fish that looks like he's in water. Our main character Sam, played by Daniel, looks like he belongs, looks like he knows the language and the culture, but he doesn't. The other foreigners he meets in China look like they don't belong, but they do. It's really fun to play with expectations and to turn those expectations on their heads.
There's two kinds of American attitudes that American expats have in China: one of them is called a "panda-hugger," and the otheris called the "dragon-slayer." The dragon-slayer is the one that says China needs to change because of this and that. The panda-hugger is like, "Oh, no. You don't understand the China the way that I understand it." And you'd expect in this situation that Sam, who's Chinese, would be more of the panda-hugger, and Amanda, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman from Nebraska, would be the dragon-slayer, but we flip them. So Sam's the one who says "No, America is great because of this and that," and Amanda's the one saying, "No, you don't understand. China is getting the short end of the stick in all these business negotiations."
Henney: It's an issue he addresses brilliantly with dialogue. For example, in the massage scene with Amanda and Natalie, Natalie tells Amanda, "You're Chinese. He's American." It's really smart how you did it. And, there's the restaurant scene [where the waiters keep giving Sam the menus while ignoring Amanda] and the scene on the steps with the duck sequence [where Amanda is explaining Chinese proverbs to Sam]. It never comes across as abrasive. It just comes across as well-written, neutral, but still funny. It's so hard to balance that line, and I think he did a great job.
Also, I've lived overseas for so long, and some of the most intelligent and witty people I've met in my life are foreigners living overseas. That was what I was most proud about in this film: the characters overseas are so incredible. Bill [Paxton]'s character, who has been in China for over twenty years, is incredibly intelligent and speaks Chinese. There's a lot of stereotypes and ideas that Westerners have about China -- which is changing now -- but this is a real take on what it's like to be a foreigner living in Asia.
APA: As Asian Americans working in Asia, did you relate to Sam's character?
Henney: I use so much of my life in Sam. That's been my life. Being an Asian American growing up in Michigan, I could sympathize right away with him. Some of the scenes were so easy for me, because I've literally been in that situation.
Like the scene with the aiyi [maid], I've had a similar situation with my ajima in Korea. She's just always there, and I'm like, "Why are you here?" I couldn't speak Korean to her. She's folding my underwear, and I'm like, "That's strange." As an American, that's weird. So, I understood Sam as soon as I read the script.
APA: What other scenes have you guys also experienced in real life?
Henney: So many scenes. Especially the taxi scenes.
Hsia: There's a great [taxi scene] moment that plays in the trailer, and that happened to me when I was researching. I was in Shanghai, and I kind of spoke Chinese, and I was trying to meet a guy. I called him on the phone, and he said, "Hey, I'm on the corner of such and such street." And he tells me to get in the cab and hand the phone to the taxi driver. So I said, "Why don't you just tell me where I'm going?" He says, "Trust me, it'll be easier. Just get in the cab and hand the phone over to the taxi driver."
So I hailed a cab, got in the car, hand the phone over to the guy, and he says "Uh-huh, uh-huh... Really?... Uh-huh. If you say so." And he hands me the phone back, the car drives one block and just stops. [laughs] I was like, "Why didn't you just tell me that I was right around the corner?"
We've gotten a lot of emails, tweets, and Facebook postings from expats in China who say they've lived that exact scene, like three or four times. It's just nice to know that it's so relatable to people who are actually living the Shanghai Calling lifestyle.
Henney: I've lived the exact scene where he's with a map trying to read the road signs. When I moved to Hong Kong, the first thing my modeling agency did was thrust a map in my hands, and say "Go to casting." And I was like, "Are you kidding me?" It's a little tiny map, the words are long, I'm trying to read it, looking around at the signs, thinking "What the hell is going on?"
A lot of scenes that resonate with me are when he's walking alone: those amazing shots with the buildings that are twisting above him. Those shots mean a lot to me because there's been so many nights when I've sat alone in my house in Korea.
I have these journals that I've written: "What am I doing here? I can't speak the language. I'm a lead in a TV show. I can't understand my director. I can't understand my co-stars. I'm nervous constantly." And seeing that montage where he's walking and starting to change as a person, that hits me. Because I've had that experience. In a different way, but in a similar way.
Shanghai Calling will be screening in New York this July at the Stony Brook Film Festival and Asian American International Film Festival.
For more information on Shanghai Calling, go to the film's official website.
Click here for APA's red carpet video at Shanghai Calling's opening at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.