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Chan is Missing
It's Definitely About Being Asian
Chan is missing. A title card immediately informs us of this fact as an energetic Cantonese cover of Rock Around the Clock fades up. This song is anachronistic in the same way that America may seem to immigrants who arrive on our shores believing the words penned by Emma Lazarus in 1883. The same words that now reside on the base of the statue of liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Ironically, in 1882, a year before this poem was written, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act into legislation. So there’s that.
Chan is Missing (1982) is a concise (check the run-time) San Francisco 80s noir directed by Wayne Wang, whom you may know from his Hollywood efforts, such as Maid in Manhattan (2002), Last Holiday (2006), or Because of Winn-Dixie (2005). Despite getting a paycheck from Hollywood, his heart and legacy will likely reside in films like The Joy Luck Club (1993) and Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985). These are great films, but my heart will always be with his shoe-string budget debut film: Chan is Missing.
The film's first shot is in a first-person perspective; we are a character, a white visitor to San Francisco, getting into a cab driven by a Chinese American man named Jo, played with passive precision by Wood Moy. We ask for a ride to the Hilton. In true noir fashion, Jo’s internal monologue plays over the action. He starts counting. Before three seconds pass, we ask him: “Where’s a good place to eat in Chinatown?” Jo muses: “I usually give them my routine on the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese cooking and get a good tip.” He knows what white people want to hear. Jo finishes his fare and visits his nephew and partner, Steve (Marc Hayashi), and Steve’s friend Amy (Laureen Chew). A conversation ensues that you could easily imagine in any household—a discussion on politics.
Wang’s inspiration for his first film was the films of the French New Wave; 60’s films that took cameras out of studios and into the streets. There are two specific ways that Chan is Missing works well; the first is its subtle presentation of grounded characters in all of their flawed humanity. In 1982, when the film was released, this was a quiet yet bold declaration that Asian-Americans were Americans working towards the same goals and against the same domestic setbacks as anyone else. They argue about politics; they drink, smoke, need to make money, and read the newspaper. The second way this film works well is in its slow-burn plotting and narrative. I’ll touch on this throughout.
Jo and Steve have decided to partner with Chan Hung, an immigrant from China, to license a taxi medallion. They need to deliver cash to the leasing office to finalize the deal, which Chan agreed to do. We learn from Jo’s internal monologue (true noir style continues), while getting a breathtaking black and white tour of 80s San Francisco Chinatown, that Chan has been missing for a few days now. No one’s seen him or the money. A social worker comes by the cafe, where Jo and Steve hang out, looking for Chan. She explains that he missed a court date. Steve and Jo are surprised to hear he was expected in court. She also gives them a quick crash course in communication styles and how there may have been a mixup between the white police officer and Chan, a Chinese immigrant. She explains that the officer was probably looking for “just the facts” and that Chan was perhaps trying to give too much context around why he accidentally committed a crime. The plot thickens.
What follows is a tour through America’s oldest Chinatown as Jo attempts to gather clues and understand who Chan really is and where he has gone. I would love to say more, but to do so would spoil the revelations that the film holds, a complex portrait of the Asian experience in America. The film takes several plot points from actual events in SF in the 80s. At one point, I wondered if the newspaper clipping Jo was examining was authentic. So I paid for a newspaper archive subscription and looked it up:
It’s real! Another critical article regarding then-mayor Dianne Feinstein was harder to track down, but if anyone at Stanford wants to dig through some boxes for me, we could probably find it. These articles highlight one of the central messages in Chan is Missing; Chinese Americans have complex histories, diverse beliefs, and differing opinions. At one point in the film, Jo is talking with his friend, Henry (Peter Wang), who is moving back to mainland China so he can feel a connection with the people around him. Jo makes a half-hearted appeal for him to stay in America. “Here, we have to do something; we have to fight!” Jo says. Henry replies “Fight for what? You know how long we’ve been here? A half-million Chinese, a hundred years. If they don’t recognize us, they don’t want to recognize us.”
Another element at work in this film eluded me the first time I watched it: old-school vs. new-school. The young Steve is comfortable in his skin as a Chinese-American. He wants to go to the cops at one point to get help in finding Chan. Jo, the older man, waves him off. “It’s none of their business.” In the film’s most emotional scene, you can feel the pain of Wood Moy’s Jo trying to reconcile his feelings and empathy for Chan with the raw “Just-the-facts” culture that Steve seems to be embracing and applying to their dilemma. Sometimes you need more than facts.
In watching Chan is Missing, one gets the sense that this cultural argument plays out internally and regularly. Like a line of noirish dialogue, for Wang and perhaps all Asian-Americans. A battle for recognition and acceptance, of one’s self and from one’s adopted country. It’s a battle that continues today, 40 years after this landmark of a film was released.
I picked up the Criterion edition of the film for this re-watch, and in the special features, there’s an interview conducted by Ang Lee with Wayne Wang. Lee mentions that one of his favorite films was Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Perhaps one of the most famous films of the 70s, Lee recounts how much he loved the noir, right up until the ending. Lee mentioned how deflated he felt when the film's central metaphor relies on Chinese culture being some sort of “heart of darkness.” An unknowable, mysterious, and possibly evil entity. Lee moved me when he told Wang that “I feel like Chan is Missing shines some light into this darkness.” Chinatown represents a poisonous view of Asian culture by choosing to bake a negative stereotype right into the title. Chan is Missing is the antidote.
Chan is Missing
Written by Wayne Wang and Isaac Cronin; Directed by Wayne Wang
English, Cantonese, and Mandarin
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
I couldn’t fit all of the AAPI viewings we wanted to fit into May, so this was a bonus week of AAPI month. I’m excited to recommend one of my all-time favorite films: This is the type of movie that not only entertains and provokes but it makes me want to make films. When going to concerts together, a friend and I consistently rate the “X-Factor.” For us, the X-factor is how much the music you’re listening to makes you itch to bail on the concert and go home and start writing music of your own. My favorite art has always made me want to create, and this film is near the top of the list in lighting this type of fire.
The subtitle of this week’s post is my playful response to Dae’s subtitle from last week.
I’ve never taken so many notes while watching a movie. I had to stop myself from writing more. Some true stray thoughts:
Chan is Missing came out 100 years after America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Not only was I compelled by AAPI month and a San Francisco-themed month to write about this film, but the Criterion Collection also released a new edition of the film just a week ago! The special features are fantastic.
Wayne Wang talks in-depth about making the film and the themes of Chinese nationalism vs. Taiwanese Sovereignty.
Wang’s father did not accept him as a filmmaker until the early 2000’s when Maid in Manhattan came out.
At the first festival screening of Chan is Missing for NY MOMA, it played alongside an unknown director named George Miller, who was screening a film called Mad Max.
Some interesting bonus reading from The Atlantic that I did while researching this recommendation:
Chan is Missing came out the same year as Losing Ground; 1982 was a great year for independent film in the U.S.!