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

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.

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.

The final screenplay reflects his wish to make a movie that would be accessible and meaningful to the Chinese-American community, while reaching non-Chinese audiences at the same time. ''If 500,000 people see it,'' he says, ''that would be 500,000 people with a slightly better understanding of Chinese-American life, and not just a Charlie Chan-style understanding.'' Though its initial audience has not been an ethnic one, Chinese viewers are being wooed through newspaper ads, and Wang would like to see a trial run in a Chinatown theater. But he hopes its Asian subject won't limit its viewers to Asians and art-film patrons in big cities. Indeed, he sees no reason why ''Chan'' shouldn't play as well in Iowa, say, as in New York - a peripatetic hit like ''My Dinner With Andre'' featuring Chinese food.

Director Wang considers the film ''extremely realistic'' as a portrait of Chinatown, from the settings and locations (and sometimes vulgar language) down to the news stories that weave around the main plot. But in making the picture, he says, ''I wanted to question myself and never take this reality for granted.'' Gradually, he wants the audience to question its own attitudes, too. ''It's important not to rely on stereotyped images or easy answers,'' he says, discussing the complexity of immigrant life in the 20th century. ''Collisions between cultures are very real, and they're always changing. They're too complex for simple formulas.

''I even feel that way about myself,'' Wang continues. ''I grew up in Hong Kong. Then I came to America and became completely Americanized. Then I went back to Hong Kong and didn't feel Chinese anymore. Am I a Chinese or an American person? That's a complicated question.

''And it also goes for people who grow up in one region of America, and then move to another that's very different. There are differences between cultures even within the United States. And I expect that'll be the theme of any film I ever make.

''By training, Wang is an artist who studied commercial art, fine art, and painting in college. He switched to film in graduate school, worked for a while in the Hong Kong film and TV industry (where important developments are taking place, he says), and made some shorts in the San Francisco Bay Area. ''Chan'' is his second feature.

''A filmmaker can create very different kinds of work,'' he says. ''I'd like to make an intelligent and abstract film on a low budget, and also do a commercial picture - on an important subject - for a major studio.

Wang considers ''Chan'' to be a political gesture, despite the frequent whimsy of its approach. He hopes it will prompt audiences to think about immigrant realities, and about the problems he encountered during his social-work days in San Francisco. That's why he soft-pedaled the intellectual basis of ''Chan,'' emphasizing the story and characters ''so people could get involved with the movie, and understand things about Chinese-Americans that they can't find anywhere else.'' The result is ''a compromise,'' he says, ''but a good one: I did a little of everything I wanted to do.'' Wang considers ''Chan'' a means of educating Americans about Chinese immigrants not through complex theorizing, but through its own Asian qualities.

''There is a special perspective in much Asian art,'' Wang says. ''It's a bird's-eye view of things, a 'wide shot' that takes in a great deal all at once. And there's real cultural basis for that - a holistic view that sees things in a connected and continuous way. It's the opposite of the close-ups and isolated shots that most Western movies have.

''In ways, I'm very Asian,'' the filmmaker continues. ''Like most Asian artists, I'm afraid of powerful and flashy visuals. I have a kind of minimal aesthetic, and 'Chan' is very functional in that way.

''In other ways, though, 'Chan' is not so Asian - it's full of bits and pieces. I'd like my next film to be smoother, in the old Chinese and Japanese manner. But then again, the bits and pieces in 'Chan' do all connect, in one way or another, even when it isn't obvious. In a sense, it is very Asian. And I hope it communicates that quality to as many people as possible. . . .''

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