July 18, 2009

Asians on Film: Sealed With A 'Shanghai Kiss'

One day while looking at Chinese-American actor, Ken Leung (Lost, X-Men: The Last Stand) and his biography/filmography, I stumbled upon a small independent film he did, Shanghai Kiss. I was curious, and was pleasantly surprised by its plot and how it features an Asian protagonist in an unusual romantic pairing.

The film stars Ken as Liam, a white-washed, struggling actor from Los Angeles by way of New York and born in Shanghai. Shanghai Kiss also stars Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, I Love You, Beth Cooper) as a very charming, underage schoolgirl named Adelaide, who crushes on the much older Liam, and Kelly Hu (X2: X-Men United), who should really be in more movies, as Micki, a lady from Shanghai whom Liam falls for. Liam is the archetypal sexually-frustrated North American Asian male figure with severe father issues.

Liam's Caucasian best friend laments how Liam refuses to date girls of his own race and culture and how he does not even speak Chinese. In an early scene, Liam easily seduces a very attractive white woman at a bar and promptly has sex with her but is brought to tears before they can finish. Liam should be satisfied by being able to date and bed any woman he chooses, in this case, a beautiful non-Asian woman that most Asian men only wish to attract. Liam feels so disconnected from his Chinese culture and heritage that it permeates an emptiness inside of him. In America, he is Chinese and in China, he is American. Although he has so many options other characters do not, he seems destined for the unhappiness that others cannot avoid.

Ironically, the 16-year-old Adelaide is the most mature character in the film (just like in Woody Allen's Manhattan), but ultimately, she is just a kid and her options, maturity, and wisdom are severly limited. Liam drops out of an ivy-league university and pursues his half-baked dream, because he has that freedom and fears the unhappy trappings of his culture. He is finally, forcefully brought back to Shanghai to revisit his culture and goes overboard in embracing it and altogether abandons his western heritage. He is a man without a homeland. He falls in love with Micki, his complete antithesis, who eventually teaches him how to live with being Chinese in America. Liam must come to terms with his fractured identity and define himself as an individual and embrace his shared communities.

Liam bemoans that there are no Asians on television or film and there is some witty banter about Asian culture and its perceptions in society. The film is interesting but it basically brings up all these really fascinating ideas about Asian-American culture, somewhat softly and subtley without ever really addressing them in full. Furthermore, the film wraps itself around a somewhat conventionally dysfunctional romantic comedy premise, albeit executed in an unconventional way, but suffers from some bad dialogue.

Ultimately, Shanghai Kiss is safe, light fare that is fun to watch while bringing up a lot of complex issues concerning the male Asian psyche in a rather mildly amusing way. Ken Leung gives a sincere, believable performance. Shanghai Kiss is worth checking out, if for anything, because it features an Asian protagonist not named Harold or Kumar.

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