“Chan Is Missing” found again in New York

Wayne Wang’s 1982 landmark American independent film “Chan Is Missing,” now being revived at New York’s Metrograph theater for a week’s run in a new 35mm print – how appropriate that a film about San Francisco’s Chinatown is playing in the New York equivalent – remarkably feels just as fresh, original, and revelatory 34 years later. Even though there were some antecedents, in 1982 what we now know as “Asian-American cinema” was still a relatively new and unfamiliar category to most movie audiences. Using the frame of a very simple basic plotline and a very familiar mystery/film noir genre, Wang tackled the kinds of subject matter that would concern other Asian-American filmmakers that followed in his wake: cultural identity, assimilation vs. being viewed as “other” or “foreign,” and generational conflict, among other issues. Wang provided a vibrant insider’s view of the multivalent and complex nature of the social, political, and emotional lives of the residents of San Francisco’s Chinese-American community. This made “Chan Is Missing,” the first fictional feature made by an entirely Chinese-American cast and crew, a pointed rebuke to other depictions in American media that viewed people of Chinese (and other Asian) descent as a stereotypical, undifferentiated mass. That Wang’s film successfully achieved this goal is notable in itself; that it did so with heart and humor, free of heavy-handed stridency, is even more remarkable.

Pretty much the entire basic plot of “Chan Is Missing” is embedded in its title. The two main characters – the middle-aged Jo (Wood Moy) and the younger Steve (Marc Hayashi) – are two cabbies searching for the titular man, whose full name is Chan Hung, who has seemingly vanished without a trace. Jo and Steve gave Chan $4,000 to broker a deal for them to obtain their own hack license; however, Chan has suddenly disappeared along with the money they gave him. The two become amateur sleuths, combing many places in Chinatown and Manilatown, looking for clues and questioning many people about Chan’s actions and character. What emerges of this missing man is a conflicting, indeed contradictory picture, equal parts “Rashomon,” “Citizen Kane,” and “L’Avventura.”

Jo and Steve’s travels through these neighborhoods make of them more than just a couple of guys looking for a man and their money; they become our guides for exploring the sociopolitical and daily lives of the community they inhabit. The complex and fraught nature of San Francisco city politics is a major concern, involving battles between competing sectors of the community: Taiwan loyalists vs. People’s Republic of China loyalists, and “ABC”s (American-born Chinese) vs. “FOB”s (“fresh off the boat”). The Taiwanese/mainlander conflict becomes especially pertinent, as much is mentioned of a “flag-waving incident” involving physical fights breaking out between the two camps over Taiwanese and PRC flags being raised at an annual Chinatown parade. Chan, who is Taiwanese, may have been personally involved in this incident, which directly caused an argument between two elderly men resulting in the death of one of them. One of the people Jo and Steve talk to speculate that this may be a reason for his disappearance.

This being a mystery, “Chan Is Missing” also has embedded within its title a slyly self-aware reference to, and an inversion of, the famous movie mysteries of Charlie Chan, who is explicitly – and very humorously – name-checked in the film. Steve jokingly refers to himself and Jo in one conversation as Charlie Chan and Number One Son. Jo later says during the running voiceover he provides throughout the film that “I’m no Charlie Chan,” although he admits to watching Charlie Chan movies on TV for “cheap laughs.” One again, this speaks to “Chan Is Missing”’s great value as a cultural corrective, its semi-documentary realism in portraying a community contrasted with a decidedly inauthentic – and for many, culturally offensive – depiction of Chinese people.

In the end, Chan’s disappearance proves to be a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a red herring that points to the real insoluble mystery, which is that of Chinese-American identity itself. Just as the absent Chan proves irreducible to one singular quality of character, so are the many different individuals who make up San Francisco’s, and by extension America’s, Chinese-American communities impossible to reduce to a simplistic monolith. Jo realizes he must learn to live not only with unsolvable mysteries, but with the fact that there are realities that exist beyond his immediate perception; as he says in voiceover near the conclusion, what’s not there is just as important as what is there.

“Chan Is Missing” marked a brilliant debut for writer-director Wang, still remaining today as probably his finest film. Though he would later work with bigger stars and bigger budgets, most notably in such films as “The Joy Luck Club,” “Chinese Box,” and “Smoke,” Wang has never quite matched the freshness, vibrancy, and continually surprising invention of his debut. All of the film’s elements cohere wonderfully in a loose-limbed, improvisatory-feeling atmosphere, with Michael Chin’s evocative, black-and-white cinematography, combining classic noir homage with cinema verité, Curtis Choy’s eclectic and accomplished sound design, as well as the great cast (made up of a mix of Asian American Theater Company actors and non-professionals from the community) contributing equally to its brilliance. The film’s accomplishment is even more laudable considering its shoestring $20,000 budget, raised mostly from grants provided by the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Especially pertinent to “Chan Is Missing” are the sounds we hear throughout: the rapid-fire, often overlapping dialog (in both English and Cantonese); the noise of the streets; the recorded and live-sung Cantonese rock, pop, and opera, all of which compete and clash for our attention. In contrast to the long, preceding silence of Chinese-American representation, in which simplistic, stereotypical, and often racist depictions stood in for truthful portraits, the sounds of “Chan Is Missing” are of a people at long last given a space to raise their voices, and with urgency and great artistry finally breaking the silence.

“Chan Is Missing” screens at Metrograph Sept. 9-11 and Sept. 16-18. Director Wayne Wang will be present for a Q&A following the Sept. 9, 7 pm show. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Metrograph’s website.