By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
Friends was already a huge hit among young Chinese viewers when I arrived in China for the first time, in 2005. I didn’t realize just how big a deal the show was here, though, until 2007, when I stumbled across an entire shelf of “Friends English” language-learning products in a Shanghai bookstore.
(The boxed sets included DVDs of the sitcom’s entire ten-season run, books with vocabulary lists and explanations of the slang used in the show, and MP3 files that enabled buyers to listen to dialogue while on the move.) One thing I always wondered was what vision of life in New York Chinese Friends viewers took away from the show. Even for a TV program, it promoted a relentlessly sanitized version of that distant metropolis; it featured virtually no minority characters and pretended that its six leads could afford enormous apartments while never appearing to work. In China, many viewers who had never been to New York probably didn’t realize how far from reality the show’s city was. Friends offered them the chance to get to know a New York that was neither completely invented nor completely true to life, and a city that might have been dismissed as hopelessly exotic could become, via this virtual immersion, comfortably familiar.
Shanghai Calling serves up something like a Friends-style perspective on Shanghai for American audiences; writer-director Daniel Hsia’s new romantic comedy omits some of the grittier aspects of living in this city, and its characters are all upwardly mobile urbanites. But this is not to say that I didn’t recognize—and enjoy—the Shanghai that I saw in Hsia’s film (which was shot on location), and I think Americans who have never visited the metropolis will be pleasantly surprised by what they learn while watching it.
Shanghai Calling follows fish-out-of-water lawyer Sam Chao (Daniel Henney), a Chinese American who speaks no Chinese and never wants to leave New York, as he moves to Shanghai under duress, lured by the vague promise of a partnership if he’ll open his firm’s offices in China. He’s initially bedeviled by the city’s quirks and eager to get back to his life in New York as quickly as possible, but (of course) gradually falls in love with both Shanghai and the people he meets there. Those people were among the highlights of the movie for me, as Hsia has done an excellent job of depicting the different types of expats floating around the community here. I cringed at the obnoxious, socially awkward English teacher who hopes that he’ll have better luck with Chinese women than he’s had with American ones (I’ve met more than a few of those guys during my years in China). Bill Paxton is sympathetic as an American fast-food executive who came to Shanghai in the 1990s, back when it was a hardship post sought out only by oddballs, only to find that times have changed; the new generation of expats—Rhodes Scholars and Harvard MBAs—aren’t interested in what an old-timer like him has to say. And Alan Ruck plays my favorite (and least favorite, in real life) role, that of a tech manufacturer who has embraced Chinese culture so enthusiastically that he glides around in silk jackets with a calligraphy set tucked under his arm, while Chinese men around him don business suits and tap away at iPhones.
Though it primarily focuses on the lives of expats, Shanghai Calling’s Chinese characters are similarly true to life: a legal assistant who works in a gleaming skyscraper in Pudong before returning to the old-style lane house she shares with her parents and grandmother; the IT specialist who’s in love with her, conducting his courtship through the offering of tapas dinners for a taste of the exotic; and the geeky backpack-toting journalist who proudly shows off a photo of his two-year-old daughter, who clutches a teddy bear bigger than she is. Hsia gets it right down to the most throwaway details, like having Fang Fang, the legal assistant, wear the same two outfits over and over, changing her accessories as she tries to disguise how small her wardrobe is.
Punctuated by a soundtrack of Chinese pop music, Shanghai Calling shows the city as more than just the skyscrapers of Pudong and the stately edifices of the Bund. Sam is stunned when he visits the house of his relocation specialist (and eventual love interest), Amanda, and finds her living in a cookie-cutter development that would be at home in suburban Southern California. Scenes that take place on the city’s streets offer viewers a glimpse of the diversity of commerce and activity lining Shanghai’s sidewalks.
For foreign viewers prone to thinking of China as alien and exotic, the movie does an excellent job of normalizing Shanghai, demonstrating that people here lead lives that are tinged with a Chinese flavor, but not so far removed from those of their New York counterparts. Shanghai Calling, I think, could perform the same role for American audiences that Friends has for Chinese, as it shows off the best side of a city that might have previously seemed totally inaccessible. Though, given the movie’s limited release, perhaps I shouldn’t expect to see “Shanghai Calling Chinese” boxed sets on the shelves of American bookstores anytime soon.
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a PhD candidate in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine whose work has appeared in venues such as the Asian Review of Books, the Ms. Magazine blog, Dissent, and World History Connected. Former editor of The China Beat and an Associate Editor at ChinaFile, she is currently based in Shanghai.