Chan Is Missing (1982): Wayne Wang Landmark Indie Film

With grants from the AFI and NEA, Wayne Wang made his solo directorial debut, the quirky comedy Chan Is Missing.

Scrapping together a meager $22,000 budget for a 10-day shoot, the film became a model for efficient regional filmmaking. “A lot of stuff was donated, and nobody got a cent,” Wayne recalled, “but everybody owned an equal share and got paid more in the end than they would’ve up front.”

Making what became the first indie with an all Asian-American cast and crew, Wang opened up possibilities for multi-cultural cinema before the term even existed.

Set in Chinatown, Chan Is Missing shows a previously unrevealed view of modern Chinese-American culture. A hip, Zen-inspired detective story, co-written by Wang, Isaac Cronin and Terre Seltzer, the film dissects some prevalent Oriental stereotypes.

On the surface, the movie is a thriller, a light shaggy-dog, Rosebud-like inquiry of the whereabouts of Chan Hung, a mysterious Taiwanese wheeler-dealer who has absconded with the savings of a couple of Chinese-American cabbies, Jo (Wood Moy) and his hip nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi), in their effort to get their own taxi medallion. The search for the elusive Chan, known as Hi-Hi for the crackers he carries in his pocket, yields an intimate perspective of Chinatown through a witty compendium of urban lore.

Wang shows a gift for sustaining tempo in a heavy stream of words as well as deft touch of characterization. The dialogue varies from campy Charlie Chan references to dry semiological lectures on Chinatown slang. Chan Is Missing has all the attributes of an intriguing Chinese puzzle, where meaning is found not in what is known, but in what is unknown.

The movie’s modest nature belies sophisticated ambitions: As a treasure trove of cultural illuminations, it could have been made only by an insider. The movie evokes Charlie Chan and other Oriental stereotypes in order to contest them. Under the guise of a detective story, Wong takes the audience on a guided tour of San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, where he explores issues of assimilation, identity, and the political schism between Taiwan and China.

Each character tells a different story about Chan, and the emergent portrait is full of contradictions and anti-climaxes. However, like Citizen Kane, the riddle, not the solution, is the point. Chan becomes an offscreen symbol of the complexity of the Chinese-American experience. As David Ansen has pointed out: “Irony is Wang’s mode, droll digressions his manner, cross-cultural cacophony his delight.” The street-smart Steve talks in idioms that disdain the new rhetoric–“That identity shit is old news.” A cook in a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt sings “Fry Me to the Moon,” as he stir-fries. A Chinese rendition of the popular song, “Rock Around the Clock,” blasts from car radios.

Wang’s most inventive creation is an earnest female academic, who discourses on how people of Chinese descent loathe coming directly to the point. To prove her thesis, she deconstructs the cross-cultural linguistic misunderstandings in the aftermath of a traffic accident.

In his zest to challenge viewers’ stereotypes of Chinese-Americans, Wayne pokes fun at the Chinese as well as the American side of the hyphen. Jo tells how whenever a tourist gets into his cab, he (Jo), starts counting “1,000, 2,000…” and before he reaches 4000, the passenger asks for a good Chinese restaurant.

Assorted thriller conventions–the Other Woman, threatening phone calls, newspaper photos that fail to provide a lead–are blended together. “If this were a TV mystery,” muses Jo in his narration, “an important clue would pop up at this time and clarify everything.” The important clue is not forthcoming, yet much is revealed: Struggles between Taiwanese immigrants and former mainlanders, capitalists and Communists. The message, as David Denby suggested, is clear: Nothing in Chinatown is simple, it’s only for white-Americans that people simply exist as “Chinese.”

When Chan disappears with their loot, the couple cracks self-mocking jokes about Charlie Chan, and rake the community for traces a man who has meant different things to different people. Indeed, the more they find out about Chan, the less they know. Chan’s estranged wife, a haughty, Americanized lawyer, dismisses Chan as a hopeless case, “too Chinese.”

There are reports that Chan has returned to Taiwan to settle a large estate, and that he may have important ties to China. Chan seems to have played a part in a scuffle between rival political factions during a New Year’s parade, when marchers sympathetic to Taipe locked flags with marchers sympathetic to Peking. Jo studies a newspaper photograph, looking for “Blow-up” clues, only to realize the photograph is of another scuffle. There are also suggestions that Chan, who was guilty of a minor traffic violation the day he disappeared, is connected with an argument between two elderly Chinese in which one fellow shot the other in a fit of temper.

The search for Chan and the Chinatown revealed are not Philip Marlowe’s shadowy world. It’s an ordinary place, with middle-class apartments, a center for the elderly, street markets. A witty movie made with assured technique and humor, Chan Is Missing is shot as film noir, using a narrator and darkly shadowed black and white cinematography, with alert camera following the characters in and out of apartments, restaurants, clubs, and offices.

Chan is Missing borrows from Welles’ The Third Man and Citizen Kane, with its missing protagonist and puzzle to reconstruct his life. Jo becomes more interested in discovering who the chameleon-like immigrant was than in getting his money back. When the money is unexpectedly returned by Chan’s daughter, it’s an anti-climax. Chan is never found, but he serves as a perfect metaphor for the mystery of the Chinese-American community. David Denby noted that for some artists, the lack of a clear identity might be debilitating or tragic, but for Wang, the untidiness of Chinese-American life is part of its diversity and glory.

Everything in the film is used to illustrate its underlying concerns: identity, assimilation, socio-linguistics, and what the academic, describing Chan’s argument with a cop, defines as “cross-cultural misunderstandings.” An appreciation of a way of life that few Americans knew anything about, the closing shots, dazzling in their simplicity, offer an empty Chinatown, devoid of people. This visual closure serves as reminder of what Jo and Steve have learned–that what isn’t seen and what can’t be proved is just as important as what is seen and proved.

A word-of-mouth success, Chan Is Missing led to a number of Wayne-helmed filmed about Chinese-American culture.