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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

SHANGHAI KISS -- movie review by porfle

(This review originally appeared online at in 2007.)

After a brief prelude in which a struggling Chinese-American actor named Liam Liu (Ken Leung, X-MEN:THE LAST STAND, SAW) fails to land a toothpaste commercial gig because he can't speak Chinese and doesn't know kung fu (shades of HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE), SHANGHAI KISS (2007) goes into full "meet-cute" mode when a dejected Liam encounters a perky, underage blonde named Adelaide Bourbon (Hayden Panettiere, "Heroes"), who is twelve years his junior, on the bus ride home.  She tells him to look happy because she's sketching his portrait, then scoots beside him and starts serenading him with a happy song. 

If I were him I'd be calling the police or brandishing a crucifix at her by now, because the way she practically forces herself on him with her Disney-character cuteness and quacky baby-talk voice is downright alarming.  But Liam is taken with her Thumper-esque charms and begins a weird relationship with her in which he drives her to and from high school every day and accompanies her to laundrymats and such while carefully remaining just outside the "boyfriend zone" for both moral and legal reasons.  Too bad, too, since she's just the kind of girl he wants and can relate to--if only they'd met a few years later. 

But just as I'm beginning to already hate this movie, which promises to assault me with full-on romantic-comedy-type complications to the point of nausea, something unexpected happens.  Liam's estranged father, whom Liam hates for being a drunk and blames for the death of his mother, calls him with the news that his grandmother has died and willed him her house in Shanghai.  So off to China he goes to sell the house for a bundle and get in touch with his Asian roots in the bargain.

Liam discovers that the house isn't worth a fraction of what he'd hoped, so he decides to keep it and move in, immersing himself in Chinese culture and relishing the fact that he's finally found a place where he truly fits in (he thinks).  But looking Chinese doesn't necessarily make you Chinese if you were born and raised in Noo Yawk, and it isn't long before he realizes how out of place he is. 

The movie fluctuates between comedy and drama so much that it takes awhile to get a handle on it.  Ken Leung as Liam kept reminding me of a young Chinese Billy Crystal (I am not a Billy Crystal fan), and some of his one-liners are just as cringeworthy.  Check out this barroom pickup line he springs on a blonde bimbo early in the film while he's still living a hollow, meaningless existence in dreary, superficial L.A.:

"I was compelled to meet you...and normally, I wouldn't succumb to my compulsions so easily.  But I'm trying to embrace a new philosophy of life that involves succumbing.  And if I have to succumb...I wanna succumb on you."

Groan.  Anyway, there are a few funny scenes here and there, and some equally heartfelt moments, such as the one in which Liam discovers some of his mother's old love letters from his father which help him see the old man in a more sympathetic light. 

Dippy romantic comedy rears its ugly head again when he hooks up with a beautiful, sophisticated Chinese woman named Micki (Kelly Hu), whom he falls head over heels for until he discovers her highly disturbing secret (no, she isn't a man).  This leads to a surprisingly moving sequence in which Liam makes a tremendous sacrifice that he finds both maturing and liberating.  The cast and filmmakers handle this part very well and it's the main reason that I ended up sorta liking this movie.

Back in L.A., Liam reunites with his father (the venerable James Hong) in an emotional scene, and then tries to straighten things out between himself and Adelaide once and for all while coming to terms with his own cultural identity.  The ending is expectedly sappy, but not terminally so. 

According to co-director (with Kern Konwiser) and writer David Ren, much of this story is autobiographical.  This independent collaboration between Ren and the Konwiser brothers, Kip and Kern (who co-produced), seems to be a labor of love, as evidenced by the thoughtful commentary track in which all three participated.  Also on the plus side, the Shanghai locations are pretty stunning, the film as a whole looks good, and the cast gives it their all. 

While at times skirting dangerously close to boring chick-flick territory, in addition to occasionally being just a tad too Billy Crystal-ish for my tastes, SHANGHAI KISS yields just enough substance to make it intermittently rewarding and worthy of a viewing if you're in the right mood.  Personally, I'm never in that particular mood, but I managed to make it all the way through without succumbing.

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