By Kyle Mullin
There’s nothing shocking about culture shock anymore, at least on the silver screen. It’s fed the formula for too many generic rom-coms.
Yet, that thread of familiarity became Daniel Hsia’s pivot point as he worked to literally flip the script on a tired genre. Indeed, the director was no stranger to convention during the filming of his latest flick Shanghai Calling. All the standard fare was there– the wayward lao wai, the culture clashing slapstick, and the wide pan shots of the city that inspired him.
But wait– the lao wai isn’t white. His name is Sam Chao, and he’s Chinese. Yet, he doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin, because he’s a second generation slickster Manhattan lawyer (played by American born, South Korean heartthrob Daniel Henney). And his love interest isn’t some starry eyed Shanghai princess, laying in wait for a foreigner to fawn over. Instead, she’s a plucky American blonde named Amanda Wilson (played by Eliza Coupe of the hit sitcom Scrubs), who has spent so many years working in The Far East that her Shanghai huaer is flawless.
Add to those twists a supermodel cast of up and coming stars like Henney and Zhu Zhu, along with Hollywood vets like Bill Paxton (Apollo 13) and Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and one might think Hsia had a sure-fire hit on his hands. Instead, Shanghai Calling fizzled at the box office, and polarized critics– some lauding its original twists and immersive Shanghaiisms, others lambasting it for the same reasons.
Below, the director rebukes those detractors, details the impediments of filming in Shanghai, and reminisces about the endless muses this metropolis offered his film.
A critic at Screen Daily said Shanghai Calling “takes time – a bit too much of it for the film’s own good – to highlight the virtues of China in general and the city of Shanghai in particular.” What was your intention while ‘highlighting’ these geographical ‘virtues,’ and why do you feel that it was time well spent? Which ‘virtue’ was your favourite to include?
I’m familiar with this review, and from what I can tell the reviewer had no interest in challenging his assumptions about another part of the world by seeing it in a new and different light. We’ve played to sold-out crowds at a few different American festivals now, and during the Q&A sessions we often are asked, ‘Wow, does China really look like that?’ and ‘Do they really have apartments that nice in Shanghai?’ Americans by and large still imagine China to be an ancient and backwards country.
My intention with Shanghai Calling was to show the western world what modern China is really like. Nobody complains that the film Midnight in Paris starts with five minutes of static shots of Parisian streets, with no characters in them. I tried to do the same to Shanghai, and I definitely don’t consider it wasted time. We got an excellent review in Variety that seemed to revel in the fact that we turn Shanghai into a central character in the film.
What do you think about the movie’s box office performance in China so far– are you happy with it? Why or why not?
I consider Shanghai Calling a modest success at the China box office, because it got great reviews, terrific user scores on Mtime and Douban, and the people who went to see it loved it. Unfortunately our studio in China didn’t put much effort into the marketing plan, which meant that even our biggest fans were asking us why there were no billboards for our movie out on the streets and no posters for the movie in the theater lobbies. There’s not much I could have done about that, I’m the director and I did my job by making a satisfying film that most audiences seem to enjoy tremendously.
Audiences seemed to especially enjoy Henney’s bike chase sequence. I like how you punctuated that scene with a street corner flutist’s music in the background. What inspired that choice? And where did you find that flutist?
I always knew that I wanted the music in that chase scene to be organic, so I searched high and low for something that would fit the scene and the themes of the movie as a whole. I stumbled across this beat-boxing flute player named Nathan ‘Flutebox’ Lee on the internet, he’s got some pretty awesome Youtube videos. As I kept listening to his music I realized that his stuff was a perfect fit for the movie, a blend of east and west, traditional and modern. So I reached out to his management, he recorded himself playing the music for that scene, and we flew him out to Shanghai for a day to film. Very nice guy.
Another great scene in the film is when Zhu Zhu’s character assumes Coupe’s blonde bombshell can’t speak Chinese, saying “the lao wai knows nothing,” only to have Coupe thank her for the tea she’s pouring, in fluent Mandarin. Tell us a little about what inspired this scene. Also, how do scenes like this reflect the evolution of expats in China, and the lagging stereotypes that some locals still harbor?
There are several scenes in our movie where language inability is incorrectly assumed, and I think it’s definitely characteristic of the current reality in China, where many foreign Chinese don’t speak a word of Chinese, but many non-Chinese foreigners are totally fluent. Also, there are countless young Chinese people who have never left China, but have watched enough American movies and TV shows that they speak English almost flawlessly.
Few movies have reflected such changes. In fact most films still seem to feature romances between white men and ‘exotic ladies.’ Why did you decide to focuses on the reverse, a white woman with an Asian man?
My approach with Shanghai Calling was to make a fun, mainstream movie that turns every stereotype about the U.S. and China on its head. One stereotype that has persisted in American films for decades now is the story of the white American foreigner who travels to the mysterious east and immediately meets a beautiful Chinese woman who falls hopelessly in love with him, as if she’s been sitting around her whole life waiting for him to come along. In my opinion it’s a tired cliché that fails to consider that Chinese women have their own things going on, they’re not just sitting around their whole lives wondering where all of the white dudes are. So I decided to flip this relationship on its head, which led to some revealing and funny moments about the dating scene in Shanghai.
How many of those ‘funny moments’ were based on reality? Henney’s Wikipedia page says that, “Despite speaking no Korean, (Daniel) Henney became a household name through the South Korean hit TV drama, My Name is Kim Sam Soon.” How did Henney channel some of those real life experiences into the film?
I’ve heard Daniel talk about the many similarities between life in China and life in Korea. When he first arrived in Korea he didn’t speak much of the language, he had an ayi in his apartment folding his underwear, and he hung out mainly with other Americans because he was so unfamiliar with the local culture. Nowadays he’s totally comfortable in Korea.
What other sorts of culture shock and culture clash did your lao wai and local Chinese cast members encounter while filming?
Of our cast, only four actors came from the US. They experienced some of the same adjustment difficulties that all expats have — language barriers, food issues, difficulty crossing the street. But on top of that they also had to act, on location, in public, with crowds of dozens and sometimes hundreds of people staring at them. After we filmed a scene on The Bund, Eliza Coupe said that there were so many people watching them from all sides that it felt like doing theater in the round.
The crowds must have been a constant challenge. What other hurdles did you face while shooting?
Getting the permits. Making an independent movie is like starting a business. And, as anyone who does business in China knows, the number of hoops you must jump though in order to do anything is daunting. Fortunately we had great people on our team who knew the ins and outs of the system. We had a couple of long delays before we could start filming, but ultimately it worked out.
All that red tape hasn’t stopped foreigners from filming here though. How do you feel about the growing number of Hollywood stars working in China- Christian Bale, Adrian Brodey, Kevin Spacey, and of course Bill Paxton in your own film? Why do you think that is the case? What unique things did Shanghai offer your American cast members that Hollywood could not?
Most films in China are period pieces, and if they are modern stories then they might not be very funny. Shanghai Calling is unique among modern films because it takes place in the modern day, it’s full of laughs, and ultimately it has something to say about the human impact of globalization. I think that’s what attracted many of our actors to this project.
For more information, visit the movie’s official website.