Existential Crisises of the Culturally Indifferent
Shanghai Kiss may distract and confuse with underage crushes and awkwardly-accented love triangles, but it's the Ken Leung character's blatant disregard for cultural expectations which makes the film compelling.
Published: Friday, October 19, 2007
If there was such a thing as a cultural vacuum, Shanghai Kiss might be one of the least compelling, most divisive Asian American films in recent memory. Its a-ha!, back-to-the-roots moments lack urgency and resonance; its grand notions of love and life fall somewhere between Lolita and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; and perhaps most curiously of all, it treats Chineseness as a flimsy existential construct and Ken Leung's cultural bullishness as a badge of honor.
And yet, because everything is more or less culturally relevant whether we we're conscious of it or not, few Asian American films in recent memory are as compelling, and the reasons are this: it treats Chineseness as a flimsy existential construct, and Ken Leung's cultural bullishness as a badge of honor.
Let's start with Ken, since it's clear that first-time director David Ren sees the journeyman actor and his flawed, more-than-a-little-ridiculous character as near and dear to his heart. Leung plays Liam, a struggling actor in L.A. with more skeletons in the closet than gigs: he's broke, he hates his father, and he cries himself to sleep, whether or not he's in the company of others. Oh, and he can't speak Chinese; nor does he particularly care to. None of which quite explains his love for the, ahem, Caucasian Persuasion, but it does clumsily set up a series of events where he goes to Shanghai, meets a curiously accented Kelly Hu, first celebrates, then bemoans his cultural transgressions, plays the role of altruistic laowei, and finally comes to the realization that the heart wants what it wants. Which, when all is said and done, may or may not still be some form of the Caucasian Persuasion, represented here by the precocious, preternaturally perky Adelaide (Hayden Panettiere). The elephant in the room? She's still in high school, while Liam is in his mid-to-late-twenties.
It's a premise that is as groan-inducing as it is pointless -- no one would mistake Leung for Humbert Humbert -- but to his credit, Leung sidesteps most potential landmines. In many ways, Leung makes for an ideal leading man. He's funny without being relentlessly so; he's relatable and soulful without having to wear his everyman qualities on his sleeve. But what he's not particularly comfortable at is being sentimental for sentimentality's sake, and the film's cloying third act suffers as a result. Still, his bull-in-a-china-shop brand of funnyman does a treacly mess like this good, and sheds light on the film's most urgent subtext: who gets to decide what Chineseness is anyways?
One might scoff at the notion that the bumbling, uncouth, culturally ignorant Asian American reserves the right to be all of those things in everyone's favorite cosmopolitan Babel -- the towering inferno of multicultural confusion that is Shanghai. But there's a brief scene in the film that affirms this. After being thrown into the back of an ominous-looking hearse, Liam comes face to face with Jai, your garden-variety Hong Kong Triad gangster, complete with menacing sneer, deranged glint in his eye, and deceptively cheery Cantonese lilt. Turns out Liam's been macking on his latest flavor-of-the-month (the aforementioned Kelly Hu), and Jai is none too pleased about it. He proceeds to lecture Liam on what he believes to be colonialism disguised as first-world-philanthropy, and throws the bathroom sink of cultural insults at him -- he's arrogant, he's ignorant, he's self-serving, and he doesn't know the first thing about what it means to be Chinese. After all, he blusters, we were here first.
Of course, if there was such a thing as a cultural vacuum, he'd be right. But in a film where another Asian American character actor (the continually and perplexingly miscast Kelly Hu) dons a fake mainlander accent and Chinese American identity is just another stand-in for existentialism, it's Liam who gets the last laugh. He's the laowai with a heart of gold, who may or may not have a fetish for white girls and can't tell where the Bund begins and the outskirts of the city end. In other words, he's an outsider in a place where few can truthfully claim to be anything else. A vocal white critic of some repute, once stood tall at a screening of Justin Lin's then-polarizing Better Luck Tomorrow and promptly declared: "Asian Americans have a right to be whoever they want to be." The question that Shanghai Kiss pointedly asks is: "Yeah, but what next?"