“Imagine a steady stream of immigrants, traveling across a vast ocean to a foreign country, searching for new jobs and better lives. But the immigrants are Americans, and the country they are moving to… is China.”
A preamble of sorts to Daniel Hsia’s winning new romantic comedy “Shanghai Calling,” this is the starting point for a ride through the topsy-turvy world of an eccentric community of expats and natives, living out their ever-dynamic lives in contemporary Shanghai.
Featured this month as a Cinema Asian America pick with Xfinity On Demand, “Shanghai Calling,” Hsia’s directorial debut and a hit on the film festival circuit is a tale of modern-day American immigrants in an unfamiliar land. When Sam, an ambitious New York attorney is sent to Shanghai on assignment, he immediately stumbles into a legal mess that could spell the end of his career.
But with help from a beautiful relocation specialist, a well-connected foreign businessman, a clever but unassuming journalist, and a street-smart assistant, Sam might just save his job, discover romance, and learn to appreciate the many wonders Shanghai has to offer.
Cinema Asian America sat down with Hsia to learn more about the backstory of how “Shanghai Calling” came about.
“Shanghai Calling” tells a familiar immigrant/fish-out-of-water tale but invests it with an updated commentary on immigration itself. The immigrants here are Americans who are looking for opportunities abroad, reversing many of the expected tropes of this dynamic. What interested you in telling this story?
DH: I became interested in this story about 6 years ago, when a good friend of mine from college decided to quit his job and move to Beijing. Within a couple of years he was speaking, reading, and writing Chinese better than I ever could, and regaling me with hilarious and bizarre stories of what it’s like to be an American “immigrant” living abroad. This idea of Americans becoming “immigrants” in the new global economy struck me as immediately fascinating. We’re so used to the United States being the “land of immigrants” that the idea of Americans moving to China to find jobs and better opportunities seems alien to us, but that’s precisely what has happened over the past 15 years. There are now so many westerners in big Chinese cities like Shanghai that you run into “foreign” (non-Chinese) faces every day. And many of these foreigners have children who speak and read Chinese perfectly, because it’s where those kids grew up – just like Chinese, Mexican, or Nigerian children growing up in the United States. This idea of American identity being turned on its head is a central theme in “Shanghai Calling.”
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This is your first feature film – what drew you to the ambitious (and difficult) task of shooting abroad, with all of its related casting, language, production complexities?
DH: It’s true, directing a movie is one of the most challenging tasks on the planet, which is why the conventional wisdom is that every director’s first film should be about two people sitting in a motel room. Motel rooms are easy to come by, your actors can wear the same costumes every day, and you never have to go outside. “Shanghai Calling,” on the other hand, required us to travel halfway around the world, film in a different outdoor location every single day, contend with the weather, and speak to my crew entirely in my second language. But ultimately this was the story I wanted to tell, and I’ve always gravitated toward challenging projects.
While Sam (Daniel Henney) and Amanda (Eliza Coupe) are the heart the film, the soul of the film is made up of all the wonderful characters you’ve surrounded them with: the mysterious investigative journalist Awesome Wang (Geng Le) and oddball “expat mayor” Donald (Bill Paxton).
Can you talk about how you developed these characters?
DH: I set out to turn Shanghai into the central character in the film, so I populated the movie city with real, true-to-life characters based on people I met during my research. Bill Paxton’s character, the “Mayor of Americatown,” was based on Jim Rice, an actual Shanghai expat who has lived in China for over 20 years and knows how to get any kind of deal done. Awesome Wang was an amalgam of two individuals I stumbled upon during my travels including a British private investigator and a Chinese journalist who told me about the challenges of being a reporter in China. Fang Fang was based on a waitress I met at a nightclub, a girl from a humble Shanghai family who had big dreams about going to college in the United States, but without the financial means to do so. There’s a saying among writers, which is to “write what you know.” It took me several months of research and wandering around Shanghai to really “know” the city and its inhabitants, and that’s how these characters came about.
And speaking of Daniel Henney, his casting in the film is both inspired and quite interesting. His own career mirrors his character Sam’s, as his work as an actor has been much more successful abroad (though in Korea) than in the US.
Can you discuss your choice in casting him?
DH: We looked at a number of actors for the role, including several very famous Chinese movie stars who speak excellent English. But what I found while meeting with the Chinese actors was that they could never seem “American” enough. When we began looking at Los Angeles-based actors for the role, Daniel Henney’s name was at the top of our list, for good reason; he’s not only extremely handsome and charming, everything about him feels 100% American. When you watch the film, there’s never a single moment when you would confuse him for anything other than an American. Now that the movie is finished, the casting choice of Daniel Henney makes us look like geniuses because he really does carry the film. His performance even won him acting prizes at the Shanghai International Film Festival and the Newport Beach Film Festival.
What are you working on now?
DH: I’m currently writing 3 new scripts, two of which I hope to direct, while also developing a television series and a web series. In this business you have to have multiple pots cooking at the same time because you never know what will happen first.