As a little girl, I often listened to my classmates discuss their music and movie crushes and the plans to one day marry them in huge weddings with dozens of photographers and celebrities present. First it was Jonathan Taylor Thomas, then it was the Backstreet Boys, then it was Leonardo DiCaprio. I always felt different and left out. For some reason (perhaps because most of my male classmates and my first crush were Chinese. I’m still longing for an AMWF romance here!) I just never found myself desirous of the same people that my classmates drooled over, as I just wanted an AMWF romanceI thought white guys looked strange. Aside from Mulan’s ever-delicious Shang, I never really found any male characters who piqued my interest.
When a friend told me about Shanghai Kiss and the AMWF relationship in it, I was skeptical at first. I’d seen Hiroshima Mon Amour and Anna and the King, but neither one was terribly modern and I couldn’t relate to them. I hadn’t yet seen an AMWF relationship that felt believable to me, one that I could have seen myself in. But then as I started watching Shanghai Kiss I was a bit more hopeful. Ken Leung was good-looking and I recognized Hayden Panettiere from her spitfire Remember the Titans days. Ken Leung I did not quite so readily recognize until I watched Rush Hour the next day; he plays the part of an evil henchman and has had minor successes since then (Law and Order, Lost, Saw).
Panettiere and Leung were phenomenal choices for the characters of Liam Liu and Adelaide Bourbon. They worked very well together right from the start and even their dialogue didn’t seem forced, which is often a problem for movies billed as romantic comedies. Leung’s Liam Liu comes across as awkward and unsure of himself, whereas Panettiere’s Adelaide is almost nauseatingly bubbly. Two completely opposite character types, and yet I found myself wanting to see them succeed as a couple. I thought that I was going to get to watch the development of a believable AMWF relationship that would finally put away my girlhood belief that I was strange for having fallen madly in love with a Chinese boy when I was eight.
That is… Until it became clear that Adelaide was only sixteen and Liam was in his late twenties. That’s right, this “romantic comedy” is not made with the typical recipe of two thirty-somethings realizing their differences and coming together in an amusing fashion. In fact, after the initial scenes I was left wondering how Shanghai Kiss could have been billed as a romantic comedy at all. It looked to me like Adelaide was seriously crushing on the cool, older guy and he was just humoring her because she made for interesting company. The age difference was a recurring joke throughout the movie, references to potential jail time included.
It quickly became apparent that Shanghai Kiss was less about Liam and Adelaide’s questionable friendship and more about Liam’s development as a man. Liam was forced to leave behind the bubbly and overattached Adelaide for a trip to Shanghai. By this point in the movie it had become apparent that Liam was trying to distance himself from his heritage as much as humanly possible, so it came as no surprise to me that he left for Shanghai only for the potential monetary benefit and not because he actually wanted anything to do with his family.
It’s common knowledge that not every first-generation American connects well with his or her culture and upbringing, and I cannot personally really fault someone for not growing up fobby like his parents. Liam is so far from anything Shanghainese that I would have believed you if you told me he was adopted by white people as a child. That being said, when it came time for Liam’s Shanghai trip I had gone from loving his character and wanting to see him succeed to really despising him and telling myself that I wasn’t surprised he was so unsuccessful in life. I thought that he was lazy, incompetent, inconsiderate, the epitome of stereotypical American behavior when confronted with unfamiliar and foreign situations.
But his initially stereotypical American-type behavior forms the basis for the beauty of his character’s development. I don’t want to delve into too many details and ruin the movie, but Liam’s time in Shanghai transforms him from the typical, rude American tourist that I want to hate into a character that I am again rooting for. He makes a few completely selfless decisions that will entirely change people’s lives, decisions that I’m not sure I could have made myself if I were in that situation. The rude American stereotype probably has a very good reason for existing, but it’s refreshing to see that turnaround.
Adelaide does eventually find her way back into the story and back into Liam’s life, but not in the way that I would have hoped. Despite their age difference, I had hoped to see more development in the Liam/Adelaide relationship than I was given. I’m left with more questions than answers. Liam finally realizes the error of his ways and wants to help other people realize their dreams, but what about his own? After everything is said and done, who is Adelaide and what does she mean to him? It’s refreshing to see a movie where it is the white character who is the accessory to the Asian star and not the other way around, but I want to see Liam and Adelaide develop into something substantial. The moviegoer is left seeing the beginnings of what may or may not develop into a friendship, a relationship, or who knows what else.
I have to give Shanghai Kiss four out of five joss sticks simply because of that. I love that it’s the Asian man who is finally the star. I love that he actually shows development of character and doesn’t remain as some shallow, stereotypical bit part. I love that he is shown as some average man who isn’t restricted to Asian women. I especially love that I am able to watch an Asian male character in a modern setting who I could reasonably become interested in if I were to see him in the streets of my native Atlanta… but I want to see more than I am given. I feel like the movie ended far too soon for me to get what I wanted out of the story.
I highly recommend the movie as it’s a rare piece of genuinely positive character development, but be prepared to feel like things have been left short.