In most accounts of the American independent cinema boom of the 1980s, Wayne Wang’s breakthrough feature Chan Is Missing receives cursory attention but is rarely discussed as a landmark film, perhaps because it arrived too early for the party. 1984 is often cited as the banner year for non-studio production as it saw the release of the Coen Brothers’ neo-noir Blood Simple, John Sayles’ sci-fi allegory The Brother from Another Planet and Jim Jarmusch’s seminal road movie Stranger Than Paradise. Yet in 1982, the Hong Kong-born Wang, who moved to the United States at the age of seventeen, shot his debut feature Chan Is Missing in and around the Chinatown area of San Francisco for a mere $20,000 with the budget being raised through academic grants.
Indeed, Chan Is Missing can be seen as a bridge between two periods of American independent cinema, coming four years after Charles Burnett’s neorealist examination of urban African-American culture with Killer of Sheep (1978) and two years before Jarmusch sent his social outsiders on a trip from New York to Florida via Cleveland. While it received rave reviews and won the award for Best Experimental/Independent Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Chan Is Missing still struggled to secure a commercial release. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby enthused, ‘It’s a film to be discovered without hard-sell,” but this was two years before Stranger Than Paradise gradually found its audience through a combination of enthusiastic notices and an iconic advertising campaign.
Within the American independent sector, Chan Is Missing remains largely unique in that it questions notions of cultural identity by utilising the framework of the detective story to facilitate a study of the Chinese-American community. Two cab drivers – the older, divorced Jo (Wood Moy) and his friend Steve (Marc Hayashi) – want to set up their own company, but in order to do so must engage the ‘middle-man’ assistance of Taiwanese businessman Chan Hung. When the third party disappears with their $4,000 start-up fund amid rumours of a politically-sensitive scuffle during a New Year’s parade, the cab drivers embark on an amateur investigation that largely involves wandering around Chinatown and talking to anyone who may provide a crucial lead with regards to Chan’s whereabouts.
This loose narrative largely rests on the dynamic between Jo and Steve whose firm friendship exists across the generational divide: Steve likes to take it easy and tell jokes, while the more thoughtful Jo finds his efforts to construct a picture of the missing man’s life undermined by the contradictory information that he uncovers. Jo is increasingly unsure about whether he is searching for a shady businessman, a political activist, or a victim of unfortunate circumstances, eventually conceding that he’s “no Charlie Chan” when it comes to solving mysteries. In his essay “Becoming Chinese American, Becoming Asian American: Chan is Missing”, Peter Feng argues that this is a mystery that is not meant to be solved because Chan Hung – who is only glimpsed briefly in a photograph where his face is obscured by shadow – is a metaphor for a Chinese-American identity that is always being renegotiated.
Although the ‘missing person’ case at the centre of Chan Is Missing is a sly method of revealing the inherent contradictions of a growing ethnic group, Wang still structures his film like a mystery, at least until the (lack of) final reveal. He also adopts a noir aesthetic with the assistance of cinematographers Michael Chin and Curtis Choy – shadows cast by looming buildings and images glimpsed through rear-view mirrors are beautifully captured in black-and-white as Wang plays with audience expectations by taking his investigation down unexpected avenues. Much of the humour stems from candid conversations, such as the discussion about the differences between ‘ABCs’ (American Born Chinese) and ‘FOBs’ (Fresh Off the Boat) which emphasises the hierarchies that exist in immigrant communities, although Chan’s case points to tensions between PRC loyalists and pro-Taiwan-independence factionalists cannot be so easily laughed off. Cross-cultural misunderstanding is illustrated when a research student tells Jo and Steve about a fraught exchange between Chan and a police office that occurred following a traffic accident when a simple factual question – “Did you or did you not stop at the stop sign?” – caused a breakdown in communication because of differences in grammatical structure.
Wang would parlay the positive response to Chan Is Missing into a prolific career, skipping between such further explorations of Chinese-American identity as Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) and Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), anonymous if lucrative studio assignments, international c0-productions, and self-financed digital video experiments. Chan Is Missing, however, evidences a seemingly effortless balance of style and content which this restless filmmaker has never quite recaptured, even in his most interesting works, and remains a highly relevant rumination on the post-immigration experience.
An earlier version of this review was posted at The Big Picture.