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Lively, enriching tale of the Chinese-American experience; 'Chan Is Missing' uses detective format for humor and insight

By David Sterritt / July 1, 1982

Yes, there's a touch of Charlie Chan in the new movie called Chan Is Missing. But it's a wry touch - the mark of a Chinese filmmaker who has adopted America, and loves both parts of his heritage so much he can't resist kidding them a little.

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The filmmaker's name is Wayne Wang, and he grew up in Hong Kong before coming to the United States as a young man. In fictional form, ''Chan Is Missing'' tells what he found in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, where he did community work for a few years after finishing college.

The main characters are a middle-aged cabdriver and his friend, a streetwise and sometimes foul-mouthed young man. They are searching for an acquaintance who has suddenly vanished. They look everywhere: in streets and shops, on the piers, and at the university. They meet a splendid cross section of humanity, and stumble on nooks and crannies they had never dreamed of.

But they don't find Chan. What they do find is a scattered mosaic of clues to the Chinese-American experience - clues as rich and varied and messy and vibrant as life itself, and just as impossible to figure out.

As a commercial movie, ''Chan'' is no more likely than its own wild-goose plot. Using local actors, borrowed equipment, and his own money - along with grants from a couple of generous institutions - Wang completed it on a staggeringly low budget of about $20,000. Despite its modest means and its grainy black-and-white look, it attracted wide attention. After winning high praise at a couple of festivals, it was picked up for release by New Yorker Films, an enterprising distribution company that is often willing to take a chance on a promising new thing.

Result: ''Chan Is Missing'' is doing bang-up business in Manhattan, and wending its way to other cities as fast as its growing reputation will allow. Imminent openings include San Francisco on July 9, Los Angeles and Boston on July 28, and Chicago on Aug. 6, with more to come. That's a lot of exposure for a proudly personal project about a pair of amateur sleuths poking through the ethnic underbrush of California.

There are many ways to approach ''Chan'' - as a detective story, a dark comedy, a light melodrama, or simply a portrait of a time and place. You might call it an existential mystery yarn with a broad sense of humor. Its heroes are Everymen, and its Chinatown setting seems quite universal once you get to know it.

Most important, the theme is timeless. As the main characters plunge into their neighborhood and their city, they come to realize the complexity of even a vague and seemingly unimportant person like the missing Chan Hung. The movie is at its best when revealing the fragmented clues they find: a photograph, a newspaper clipping, an anecdote from a neighbor, a memory from a friend. The deeper they dig, the deeper the mystery becomes - and the funnier it gets, as facts become garbled and one incident blurs into another.

In the end, the story simply dissolves, fading gracefully and enigmatically into its own background. It's like a trick out of a Thomas Pynchon novel, and European movies like ''Eclipse'' and ''Out One: Spectre'' come readily to mind. But this disappearing act is no arty pirouette. It's the triumph of cinema over story, of poetics over plot.

Discussing his film in New York the other day, Wang said he first intended it to be more of a documentary. But he found the project becoming ''too dry and academic,'' to the point where his own crew and actors had trouble understanding it. So he wrote a different script - more dramatic, more of a narrative, and centering on a Chinese character.