Monday, February 11, 2013

Rom-com heaven: Daniel Hsia's SHANGHAI CALLING gives immigration a good name

The year is young, but if any forth-coming romantic comedies outdo this week's opener, SHANGHAI CALLING, we should consider ourselves blessed. Not since the under-seen but wonderful Outsourced, have we had a rom-com that did so much so well, tackling everything from globalization and patent piracy to culture clash amd an ironic, inside-out look at immigration. It's also a feel-good film by virtue of the fact that you end up liking so many of its characters so very much. These are mostly gracious, decent, charming people with problems that can be solved rom-com style -- but well enough that, after watching the movie, you'll go to bed still smiling and wake up in the morning feeling not in the least ill-used.

The writer/director here -- Daniel Hsia (at left) -- is someone of whom I know little. His credits are more toward writing than directing (this is his first full-length film), but he has clearly been learning on the job. His movie is graceful, first moment to last, and filled with performan-ces that show either (maybe both) a knack for casting and the ability to get every actor on the same page in terms of tone and spirit. Hsia under-stands rom-com conventions, but he also knows how to up-end these when necessary so that, while his movie goes clickety-click toward a satisfy-ing resolution, he finds the occasional surprise to keep us alert and hungry for more.

The story concerns the American ex-pat community in Shanghai (known humorously as Americatown, the original title of the movie) to which comes a lanky, hunky high-level lawyer, oh-so-sure of himself and expecting to achieve partnership if he does his new job right. (Played by the very good-looking and talented  Daniel Henney, above, this role just might be a career-maker.)

The joke is that, though he looks Chinese, having been raised in America, he doesn't even speak the language. His pretty, young American relocation-specialist (a lovely, spunky Eliza Coupe, above) does, however, and she tries to help this cocky fellow out.

Also in the mix are our hero's patient, sweet secretary (played by Zhu Zhu above)...

the all-important client (Alan Ruck, above) whom our lawyer must serve...

a horny school-teaching member of the ex-pat community (Sean Gallagher, above, left) who discovers a knack for buying up electronic equipment...

a man of mystery named Awesome Wang (Geng Le, above) whom everyone recommends getting help from....

and, best of all, and old favorite of ours, Bill Paxton (above) as the current president of the ex-pat community.

These folk and more swirl around our hero, helping him do right and trying to hinder wrong (at which he seems particularly adept). Meantime, he discovers a knack for figuring out why the heroine's little daughter has taken to speaking only Chinese, among other new skills he begins to develop as he acclimates to this new environment. Along the way, we see the sights of Shanghai, which look pretty damned enticing, and the look the movie takes at the ex-pat community there seems relatively on the mark.

Hsia's screenplay is smart and witty, even occasionally moving, as the wheel of romance are greased and set in motion -- involving two different relationships. An especially sweet scene is the one between the boss, his secretary, her family and the young man who loves her. This is, in a word, "dear." Even the outtakes during the end credits are better than the usual (though probably not that necessary).

Shanghai Calling, apparently self-distributed and running 101 minutes, while continuing to screen in San Francisco (at The Presidio), opens this Friday in New York City (at the Quad Cinema) and in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 and TCL's Chinese 6. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, simply click here.

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