Last night, the Metrograph Theater revived a piece of cinematic history with a showing of a newly restored 35mm print of Wayne Wang’s debut film, “Chan is Missing.” Wang was there to present the film and gave the audience some historical context behind its creation. What stuck out to me the most—to paraphrase Wang—was his noting of the film’s release in relation to the rest of independent American cinema; among the influences of “Chan is Missing” is Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” a film which ushered in a new type of low-budget independent filmmaking. “Chan is Missing” fits into the middle of a 20th cinematic timeline of independent cinema. It comes after “Breathless” but before bigger indie hits, such as Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.” I’m unsure whether Lee or Smith saw Wang’s film, but as Jake Perlin (Metrograph’s lead programmer) put it, it is undeniable that “Chan is Missing” laid the blueprint foundation for the American independent films that would follow years later.
That blueprint is reflected in Wang’s freewheeling direction of the film’s narrative and of his actor’s improvisational skills. At one point in the story, the film’s deuteragonist Steve (Mark Hayashi) is playfully criticized because his humor seems to be an attempt to replicate Richard Pryor. In turn, that line of dialogue reminded me of Spike Lee’s own performance as Mars and Mookie in “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do the Right Thing,” respectively. I also think that Hayashi’s acting is emblematic of “Chan is Missing’s” narrative rhythm. The film is very fast-paced and unconventional; both scenes and characters come and go, conversations are interrupted in order to cut to a monologue by characters occupying a different time and space, and the story isn’t necessarily resolved, yet this latter aspect of the film doesn’t matter. “Chan is Missing” isn’t so much interested in telling a cohesive story so much as it is of using the premise of the story to explore real-world issues.
The film takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown and is about two cab drivers, the elderly Jo (Wood Moy) and his younger nephew Steve. Tired of working for someone else, they decide to become their own bosses by attaining a taxi license. The two turn towards their friend and third business partner, Chan, to handle the matter. Chan, however, alongside the $4,000 dollars given to him to lease the license, disappear. Initially, what the film is about is Jo and Steve’s search for Chan. Together, they scour all over Chinatown searching for clues. They stop by places Chan was known to frequent and interview the locals that knew him. It is through these interviews that we start to get a portrait of Chan—who never actually appears in the film—but more importantly, of what it means to be a Chinese-American.
Jo provides a voice-over narration to the film which not only stitches together the loose threads but also provides Wang’s own philosophical insight on Chinese identity. At the end of “Chan is Missing,” Jo begins to compare all the different stories the interviewees told him of Chan and comes to the conclusion that Chan’s external appearance was a contradictory one; he was intelligent but also stupid, someone who was simultaneously “fresh off the boat,” but also assimilated into American identity, so on and so forth. I think the answer of Chan being contradictory is ultimately how Wang feels about the cultivation of Chinese identity in America.
Each character interviewed has their own belief of how Chinese immigrants should behave in America and of course with there being so many viewpoints discussed, contradictions are sure to rise. The conclusion is that there is no such thing as a “proper” way to be a Chinese-American. Rather, the answer is a personal one that’s cultivated on your own beliefs. One character humorously states that to be a Chinese-American is to be like an American apple pie baked in a Chinese style; externally, the pie appears like a regular pie, yet inside, the texture and intricacies of the pie are different because it’s been baked through Chinese methods; American on the outside, Chinese on the inside.
Not all answers are so humorous however. Wang also explores the tension of Chinese identity amongs the American-Chinese populace; specifically, the political tension between Chinese immigrants who support mainland China versus Chinese immigrants who are supporters of Taiwan. In Jo and Steve’s investigation of where Chan might have disappeared to, they stumble upon a politically fueled incident in Chinatown. During a Chinese New Year’s Day parade, there were disagreements between the local citizens on which Chinese flag to fly; Taiwan or mainland China? Both flags were flown, and later on, a supporter mainland China got into an altercation with a member of the opposite camp, leading to the latter being shot and killed.
Wang’s inclusion of this story—which is based off a real news story he found—shows a deep understanding of his own people that I don’t think would have resulted from a non-Chinese director. At the end of the film, during the Q&A, Wang stressed for minorities who wanted to make films concerning their ethnic backgrounds and stories to simply grab a camera and begin recording; Hollywood will not tell your stories.
Despite all of its seriousness, “Chan is Missing” is also an extremely humorous film thanks to Wang’s eccentric directing. Moy takes on the role of the straight guy and Hayashi the wise guy; together, their chemistry is dynamic and Wang knows how to control that energy. Close-ups of Hayashi while he performs his act magnify his body; his physical presence becomes as important as his verbosity, and I think Wang’s focus on Hayashi’s physicality really compounds the humor. The deliverer of the punch-line, however, goes to Moy. Whereas Hayashi’s acting is wild, Moy’s is deadpan. Once Hayashi finishes his joke, Wang then cuts to a shot of Moy’s face. There’s a contrast here between Hayashi’s flair and Moy’s stillness. Combined with Moy’s expressive eyes—there’s a glint of bewilderment and annoyance there—we laugh at the exchange between the two because ultimately, it’s silly and heartwarming.
“Chan is Missing” is a landmark film for what Wang achieves, especially as his directorial debut. In his wild style of film-making, Wang laid the groundwork for future independent directors, but “Chan is Missing” is more than just style; there’s also substance. The politics of the film are deeply explored and still relevant today whether it’s the concern of what it means to be a Chinese-American or the reluctance as a minority to approach the police for help. Layered on top of all these elements is a sense of humor that gives the film an intimate touch, because its subjects are real—Wang based the characters off real people he knew, and it shows.
The Metrograph website currently shows “Chan is Missing” as only playing until September 11, but I believe at the Q&A, it was said that the film would also be running the subsequent weekend of the 16th and 17th. If that is the case, for those in the NYC area, I highly recommend going to the theater and watching this film!