We launched the trailer for SHANGHAI CALLING last Friday. For weeks before the launch, we were swamped. On the creative side: Concept Arts, a renown trailer house in LA, was busy trying to whittle our whole movie down to 2 minutes of footage that were funny, intriguing, and offered hints about the story. On the technical side: We had to reconfigure the website and pick a video site of our choice (thanks to superior picture quality, Vimeo beat out Youtube, although we did post the trailer is on both — watch them side by side to see what I mean). And on the publicity side, we reached out to a number of blogs, websites, and famous friends to help us promote the hell out of it.
For me, it was a week riddled with anxiety. I’ve been working on SHANGHAI CALLING for years. It’s a good movie. I’m dying for people to see it. But putting actual footage of the movie out there into the world, for people to watch and judge for the first time, was nerve-wracking. Not just because of the usual filmmaker concerns. More than anything, I was worried about how one group of people would respond: real expats living in China.
Let me be clear: I love expats. I’m fascinated by them. And they’re great people too. From the moment I arrived in Shanghai to research this story, everyone I met treated with a kindness and generosity that, here in the States, we reserve for close family. That’s what happens when you live abroad: you help your fellow countrymen, and they help you back.
But when it comes to portrayals of their lives, expats can be especially harsh critics.
For example: A couple of years ago, The New York Times ran this article about American college graduates who, unable to find work in the US, moved to China, found jobs, and were quickly promoted to the top of their organizations. The article received significant attention here in the US, fueling various raging debates about the economy, President Obama, China, and America’s future. But shortly after the article appeared, expat blogs like this one tore the NYT article apart for lazy reporting and inaccurately portraying how difficult it really is for a non-Chinese-speaking expat to “make it” in China. There’s a word that expats use to describe their feelings when they see something like the NYT article: “cringe.”
My good friend Vance Wagner (longtime Beijing expat, I mentioned him here) warned me about this long before we started the movie. He explained to me that when it comes to the media, expats can be like hipsters: cynical and impossible to please. Vance might be right about the hipster/expat comparison. Pedaling around Los Feliz on a fixed-gear bike in skintight jeans on a hot summer day is an unusual and inconvenient choice; so is moving to a country where you don’t know the customs and don’t speak the language.
Here’s what I think: China is a topic that is all over the news and featured in dozens of best-selling books, but the majority of Americans still don’t understand what life is really like in China. Expats have that understanding. But it’s an understanding they came to only after years filled with mistakes, misunderstandings, frustrations, arguments, alienation, and the occasional victory. And they don’t believe that anyone who hasn’t lived that exact existence can portray it accurately. So when they see anything that distills that experience to a blanket generalization or a lame joke, all they can do is “cringe.”
Though we launched the SHANGHAI CALLING trailer primarily for an American audience, people in China found it extremely quickly. And sure enough, the very first expat comments I saw about it were guarded and “cringe”-wary. But slowly, a trickle of positive comments came in on our Facebook and Twitter, and now we’re getting a flood of positive compliments from expats who are excited to see the movie.
Maybe we avoided the usual negativity because of the preparation and research that went into the script. Because of the two months I spent in Beijing and Shanghai listening to every expat who would talk to me. Because of the genuine fondness I feel for the hundreds of thousands of westerners who live in China. Maybe all of that actually comes across in our two minute trailer.
Or maybe it’s just because our actors are so damn gorgeous. Yeah, it’s probably the actors.
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