Here’s a helpful piece of advice for any aspiring film critics out there: never search out information on the making of a movie before you’ve seen it. I signed up to review Shanghai Kiss simply because its plot description sounded interesting. So I went to IMDB to find out more about the film and discovered an earnest letter from director David Ren in the comments section. He mentions that the film is quasi-autobiographical, that it was mostly financed by people who have their life’s savings on the line if it flops, and most significantly, that it’s an attempt to give Asian-American actors the spotlight instead of being relegated to background roles.
That’s certainly a worthy goal for a movie: there are few prominent Asian actors in American cinema or on television, and most of them are foreign imports like Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi (and even then, they’re usually stuck playing the sidekicks in big Hollywood blockbusters or starring in films that never make an impact beyond the arthouse circuit). I really wanted to love Shanghai Kiss and to be able to recommend it as a breakthrough for Asian-American cinema, but it’s merely an uneven, occasionally soulful film handicapped by some one-dimensional characters and over-familiar plot elements.
Ken Leung plays Liam Liu, a second-generation Chinese-American struggling to make it as an actor in L os Angeles. As the movie begins, he’s auditioning for a part only to have the casting director ask him if he knows martial arts like it says on his resume. “Is there martial arts in this commercial?” Liam reasonably asks. “I thought it was for toothpaste.” Unable to land any acting jobs, Liam leads a lonely, meaningless life, dependent on his estranged father for money while his only friend is another failed actor named Joe (Joel Moore). It looks like Liam might spend the rest of his life in a state of professional and emotional paralysis until his grandmother suddenly dies and, even more surprisingly, leaves him a house in Shanghai in her will.
Shanghai Kiss follows Liam as he travels back and forth between Los Angeles and Shanghai and realizes that he’s never seriously thought about his racial identity or where he belongs in the world. No matter where he goes, he’s defined by who he isn’t: in America he’s shut out from a film industry that’s only interested in white faces, but in China he’s just another ugly American who doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t understand how sheltered a life he’s led. He treats anyone who speaks in broken English as a simpleton, ignoring the fact that he’s entirely dependent on other people to translate for him when the conversation requires Chinese. He’s thrilled at how little everything costs in Shanghai but ignores the obvious implications of how much the average person in China must make for a living. When he hails a taxi to take him back to his hotel, he’s furious with the cab driver for not understanding his pathetic mangling of Chinese and taking him to the wrong place.
The film captures the disconnection of Liam’s life in Los Angeles and his wanderings through Shanghai with a degree of honesty and attention to detail that feels closer to the ambiguity of real life than the stale plotlines of most Hollywood films. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Liam’s relationships with two very different women who seem to have no other reason for existing except to attend to his emotional needs.
In the end, Liam’s character development boils down to which easily impressed babe he’s going to end up with: the worldly yet responsible Micki Yang (Kelly Hu) in Shanghai, or spunky 16-year-old jailbait Adelaide (Hayden Panettiere) in Los Angeles. Neither girl gets much character development beyond showing how they help Liam to learn more about himself and move on with his life. Even Micki’s tragic back story, when it’s finally revealed, is only important insomuch as it forces Liam to learn a valuable life lesson. Meanwhile, Adelaide is a stock character often found in coming-of-age movies: the precocious dream girl with an oversized-personality who likes to show how free spirited she is by doing things like spontaneously breaking into song while on the bus (see also: Natalie Portman in Garden State).
Yet another subplot involves Liam’s relationship with his alcoholic father (James Hong, who appears in all of one scene) and could practically fill an entire movie by itself. There are great ideas in this film, and no shortage of talent in front of or behind the camera. Shanghai Kiss is beautifully shot and looks miles better than any other direct-to-DVD movie I’ve ever seen. Leung provides the right mix of charm and nuance to suggest that he could be a Hollywood leading man.
And the biggest surprise might be Panettiere, who manages to invest Adelaide with a restless energy that’s much more convincing than anything the script gives her — she proves that she’s not just a flavor of the month hottie but could have a real future as an actress if she’s able to find the right material. But it’s depressing to realize that a movie about breaking our preconceptions of Asian-Americans is filled with female characters who are little more than stereotypes.
The DVD includes a modest collection of extras and special features. “To Shanghai and Back: An Interview With Cast and Crew” is standard-issue behind the scenes fluff, while “Behind the Kiss: The Making of Shanghai Kiss” is a bizarre compilation of on-set footage edited together without any context and set to what sounds like elevator music. An audio commentary featuring the directors and the producer is more interesting than most (they discuss the creative freedoms and financial limitations of making an independent film), and a handful of deleted scenes and the trailer round out the package.
But for me, the most interesting part of the DVD was simply the front cover: Shanghai Kiss had the good fortune to be released after Panettiere rocketed to stardom as a cast member on Heroes, and so her smiling face is front and center on the cover. It’s a cruel irony that a movie made to promote Asian actors has a blonde-haired white girl on the DVD cover, while its Chinese-American star is reduced to an indistinct blur in the background.