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A love letter to Shanghai

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2012-08-10 09:50

A comedy about expats

If there is such a genre as expatriate movies, Shanghai Calling fits the bill perfectly. It is about a Chinese-American attorney finding himself "airlifted" to Shanghai. Contrary to popular belief, Sam Chao is not eager to embrace his Chinese roots.

Humor erupts with cultural clashes. But much of it is not derived from Chao's contact with local Shanghainese, but rather from his exposure to the local expat community, whose members display a knowledge of - and an affinity for - Chinese language and culture that repeatedly makes his - and the audience's - jaw drop.

That twist helps dispel the clouds that surround many movies with cross-cultural setups. Period drama such as The Painted Veil also focuses on expats in China, but the innate inequality between local Chinese and Western residents seeps through despite high-minded efforts to hide the stance of condescension.

Then, there are those like Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, which flaunt like a badge of honor their inaccuracies in their portrayal of China so that anyone with a modicum of China exposure would laugh it off as ridiculous.

Daniel Hsia, who wrote and directed Shanghai Calling, spent months in Shanghai to do research and talk to people. The cumulative expertise can be felt through details and nuances that are possible usually from long stays in China. There are exaggerations of course, as this is a comedy, but overall he has nailed it. What's more wonderful is the love story that gradually unravels as Chao learns to not only face the new environment, but himself.

China's expat community may not care about the latest Chinese blockbuster, which is usually a costume drama or fantasy, but Shanghai Calling is like a mirror that reflects their little joys and frustrations in this land of constant change

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn.

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