#538) Chan Is Missing (1982)

#538) Chan Is Missing (1982)

OR “Forget It Wayne, It’s Chinatown”

Directed by Wayne Wang

Written by Wang, Isaac Cronin and Terrel Seltzer.

Class of 1995

The Plot: In San Francisco’s Chinatown district, aging taxi driver Jo (Wood Moy) is applying for his cab license with his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi). Their friend Chan Hung has been assisting them in the process, and one day seemingly disappears with the $4,000 Jo and Steve gave him. The two try to track down Chan, a search that leads them throughout Chinatown, where many of the residents have contradicting viewpoints of Chan. “Chan Is Missing” uses its mystery and backdrop to examine the struggles faced by the Chinese American community, including identity issues and tensions between mainland China and Taiwan.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a seminal work of Asian-America cinema” and “a heart-felt travelogue of San Francisco’s Chinatown”.

But Does It Really?: “Chan Is Missing” is referred to in various film essays as a “quiet gamechanger”, and I think I know what they mean. “Chan” might not get mentioned among the groundbreaking classics of filmdom, but its diverse depiction of Chinese Americans was one of the first in American film, and continues to inspire more varied depictions of Asians throughout our popular culture. The film’s more cerebral approach takes some getting used to, but behind its complex outer shell is a dissection of Chinese culture with a film noir coating. A “yes” for the NFR inclusion/continuing impact of “Chan Is Missing”.

Shout Outs: Supporting character Henry is always seen wearing his “Samurai Night Fever” shirt.

Everybody Gets One: Wayne Wang inherited his love of movies from his father, who named him after his favorite actor, John Wayne. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Wang moved to California to study medicine, but the political atmosphere of 1960s Berkeley led him to study film and television at Oakland’s California College of the Arts. Wang was inspired to make “Chan” while working with immigrants and hearing their stories of struggle and assimilation. “Chan” was made with grants from both the AFI and NEA that totaled just under $22,000.

Wow, That’s Dated: “Chan” is a nice little encapsulation of 1980s Chinatown, including shoutouts to such political figures as then-mayor of San Francisco Dianne Feinstein. Plus, as with many a mystery movie on this list, this case would be a lot easier to solve if everyone had smart phones and the internet.

Title Track: “Chan Is Missing” refers to not only the missing character of Chan Hung, but also the fictional detective Charlie Chan. While popular throughout the ’30s and ’40s in various novels, films, and radio programs, Charlie Chan came to represent many negative Asian stereotypes (adding insult to injury, he was always played in films by White actors in yellowface). This film’s more dimensional depictions of the Chinese (mixed with the mystery elements) prove that (Charlie) Chan is indeed missing.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for this little movie, but “Chan Is Missing” did receive a special award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Despite being filmed (and premiering) in San Francisco and utilizing local talent, “Chan” received zero San Francisco critics awards, and was rejected by the San Francisco Film Festival. Seriously, SF?

Other notes 

  • First off, my namesake is St. Anthony, patron saint of lost people. Chan is missing? I’ll get Tony on it.
  • One of Wayne Wang’s inspirations while making “Chan” was the Chinese philosophy that “what is not there is just as important as what is there.” While Wang felt the final result was “too intellectual” for film, he has stood by this creative choice in recent years, stating how important it is for young filmmakers to take these kinds of risks.
  • The majority of “Chan Is Missing” was filmed on weekends, as everyone involved had day jobs and/or school. For example, Wayne Wang was simultaneously writing bilingual science curricula for SFSU while making “Chan”. With apologies to the late James Brown, Wang may in fact be the hardest working man in show business.
  • This is the third movie on the NFR list that opens with “Rock Around the Clock”, albeit a cover of the song in Chinese, thus highlighting the film’s theme of cultural identity immediately.
  • Both Wood Moy and Marc Hayashi were members of San Francisco’s Asian American Theater Company before being cast in “Chan”. The two have a nice rapport between them, and their inherent dichotomy gives the film a nice balance: Jo with his more mature, grounded approach to the mystery, Steve with a more youthful, unpolished confidence. And when was the last time you saw a movie where one of the leads was a Chinese man in his mid ’60s?
  • Wang’s theory of filmmaking: when in doubt, cut to the old guy. Moy’s reaction shots cover up a lot of edits, presumably to stitch together two separate takes of improvised dialogue.
  • One of Wayne Wang’s best directorial decisions: the multiple POV shots throughout the film. These shots allow the viewer to feel that they are a participant in this depiction of Chinatown, and not just an observer.
  • Identity in film is a fine line to walk, but thankfully Wang et al never make their discussion about the subject sound preachy, or like a plea for racial tolerance. Each character in “Chan” is so well defined the dialogue comes across as hearing different perspectives from real people, rather than characters that serve as a mouthpiece for the writers.
  • This movie’s drinking game: take a shot every time a passerby realizes they are on camera. Guerrilla filmmaking at its finest.
  • “Chan Is Missing” rarely strays from Chinatown, but one of the last scenes occurs at Fort Point, not too far from where Kim Novak jumps into the bay in “Vertigo“. Hey, I was just there!
  • The final montage is set to the song “Grant Avenue” from “Flower Drum Song“, offering one final contrast between a White perception of Chinatown and its authentic reality.

Legacy 

  • After being rejected by multiple film festivals, “Chan Is Missing” was selected by New York’s MoMA to play as part of its New Directors/New Films series. Shortly after this, “Chan” was picked up for distribution by New Yorker films and had a surprisingly successful run in a handful of independent theaters. Wayne Wang often recalls seeing lines at its original New York engagement that stretched around the block.
  • Despite the warm reception “Chan” has received over the years, Wayne Wang has expressed disappointment that his film didn’t lead to more change in the opportunities and representation of Chinese and Chinese-Americans within American film.
  • After making a series of movies that dissected the Chinese-American experience (among them future NFR entry “The Joy Luck Club”), Wayne Wang branched out with movies tackling more diverse subject matters and cultures, in an effort to avoid being pigeonholed as an “Asian” director. And you can’t get any more different from “Chan Is Missing” than with 2002’s “Maid in Manhattan”. Not a great movie, but hey, if it pays the bills…

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