SHANGHAI CALLING and 5 BROKEN CAMERAS



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At the end of Shanghai Calling, the new ex-pat comedy written and directed by Daniel Hsai, a reporter summarizes the central character’s journey by telling the audience that our not-so-intrepid hero has changed, but that perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising: Shanghai, itself, is a changing city and it can have that affect on people.
I found this observation to be a bit odd, to say the least, mainly because the character is never changed one iota by Shanghai.  In fact, this up and coming city barely phases him a bit.  What changes him is pg.  101 of whatever screenwriting book is popular at the moment.  It’s not Shanghai that does the trick.  It’s formula, and not a particularly impressive use of it either.
This central character is called Sam.  He’s one of those obnoxious, egocentric, vain, know it all, extremely full and sure of himself (well, you know the type) characters (and to top it all off, he’s a lawyer, a deadly conglomeration).  So far, so good.  Unfortunately, he’s also incredibly bland, boring and banal (an even deadlier conglomeration).   He is sent by his bosses to Shanghai to run the local office of his law firm because he’s of Chinese ancestry, even though he doesn’t speak the language and hasn’t, as he states somewhat hyperbolically I suspect, been further than 79th Street in New York (he’s played by Daniel Henney, who, it must be admitted, is rather deft at double takes).  Cultural misunderstandings, legal shenanigans and romantic entanglements ensue, all on the exact page numbers they are suppose to ensue on, I would bet.
It’s almost impossible to care what happens to Sam.  Well, not exactly.  He’s actually the kind of character you want to fail.  He’s the kind of character you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.   So, as only happens in the movies, he’s cast as the romantic lead.  Yes, for some reason that only film deities can imagine, when he meets the female romantic lead, a woman who thought her first husband was such an awful excuse for a human being that she moved with her daughter to Shanghai to make sure she never has to set eyes on him again, she actually thinks Sam might be husband material (of course, this might actually explain her first disastrous relationship if this is the sort of choices she keeps making in men).  
Which is where formula, like Ecstasy, really kicks in, and in high gear.  It’s as if Hsai suddenly came to the realization of, OMG, we have to make this guy likeable in order to have a happy ending, so Hsai suddenly, out of nowhere, gives Sam something to do that’s not true or consistent with who he is, that’s not only not organic to his character, but is so totally out of it—he has Sam bond with a little girl. 
And the story just gets clunky, clunkier, clunkiest after that.  It’s one of those plots where the hero is desperate to get something done, so he stops for a drink or has lunch instead (again, seemingly for no other reason than Hsai needs Sam to do something likeable).  It’s also one of those plots that depends on Sam coincidentally running into people at just the right time (like the said female romantic lead).
Other plot turns are confusing.  Sam makes a legal suggestion to a client that his assistant strongly advises him against.  The point is to demonstrate how pompous and unwilling to listen this asshole of a hero is.  But it’s unclear why the assistant advised against Sam’s course of action.  And by the time the whole rigmarole is over, it actually seems that Sam’s advice was the correct course of action.  His first act story reversal and second act plot twists are not caused by his advice being wrong, but by a crook who would have been a crook no matter what Sam told his client to do (there’s also something a little fishy here wherein a client gets a licensing agreement signed without his lawyer being present or handling it himself; but I can’t really answer to that).
At the end, there is, in many ways, a significant scene in which Sam has to decide whether to stay or leave Shanghai (and if you don’t know what decision he’s going to ultimately make, you need to get out to the movies or watch TV more).  To help in this decision, there is a montage where Sam remembers all the people he has run into while in town.   What’s odd is that I couldn’t figure out how any of these encounters could have convinced him of anything, much less make him want to stick around.  It’s a last ditch effort to fulfill a typical, and somewhat clichéd, character arc, and it, like the movie as a whole, comes up a bit short. 
5 Broken Cameras is a documentary about a Palestinian farmer who used five cameras over the years (replacing each one as they were broken) to record a history of his family and other locals’ resistance to the encroachment of new Israeli settlements on their land.  The subject matter is important and there are some powerful moments (and some funny ones, as when the Palestinians try to use the Israeli’s own ploys against them—you build a building on our side of the border and refuse to take it down because it’s against the law to tear down concrete buildings, we’ll build a concrete building on your side of the border that you can’t tear down because it’s against the law—though they take it down anyway).   At the same time, as much as I wanted to be gripped by what was going on, I never felt fully drawn in.  The directors, Emad Burnat (the farmer who filmed the events) and Guy Davidi, were never able to create a strong enough narrative to affect me as emotionally as I wanted or needed.  But it does have an optimistic ending—the border fence came down and the Israeli courts forced the authorities to give back some of the farmland that was taken. 
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