The sudden disappearance of a Taiwan immigrant named Chan Hung in Chan Is Missina is one
whopper of a red herring. He vanishes with $4,000 given to him by Jo (Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayashi) for a taxi licence, and, in the effort to find him, the pair comes up with sweet nothing. But in his investigations Jo discovers a great deal about his friend Chan Hung’s past. The real mystery of Chan Is Missing is the mystery of human behavior.
Shot in black and white for $20,000 in San Francisco’s Chinatown and Manilatown, Chan Is Missing shows what you can have with a small amount of money and plenty of conviction. At the same time, it shows what you cannot have: good lighting, sharp film stock and the audio sophistication that we have come to expect from modern movies. Despite its earthy humor and witty observations on the immigrant Chinese personality, the movie is often pretty ragged and lacks a narrative density. It keeps running out of fuel, and some parts of the puzzle behind Chan’s disappearance (a mystery woman, a traffic accident and a flag-waving incident during a parade) get to be fairly tiresome after a while. As the narrator, Jo, says: “If this was a TV mystery, an important clue would pop up and clarify everything.” This is true, but it is also an excuse.
What Chan Is Missing does have going for it is insight into the Chinese
character. Jo and Steve never get straight answers from anybody: the Chinese respect the mystery of Chan’s disappearance and have no desire to probe into it. After all, they say, a man walking down a street looking for answers can only find them from a man in a puddle of water: himself. It drives Steve crazy—he has lost most of his Chinese legacy, and all the doubletalk makes him hop around with impatience. Though born in the United States, Jo still has some connection with his racial roots and pursues Chan’s disappearance with fascination and determination.
Given the messiness of the movie (it is too often wingy in the wrong way), its kicky vignettes hold the attention. There is a funny sequence in which Jo and Steve listen to a goody-two-shoes lawyer (Judy Nihei) explain the difference in “modes of speech” when a policeman and a Chinese tangle over a traffic accident. A chain-smoking restaurant cook, wearing a T-shirt with SAMURAI NIGHT FEVER on it, sings Fly Me To The Moon while he does orders of pork chow mein. However, things are never quite what they seem to be in the Chinese character: the cook later shows up in a suit and talks convincingly about why the Chinese have never really been integrated into U.S. society.
Chan is Missing has plenty of those switches, and it is a good thing. Director Wayne Wang has a lot to learn about cutting, pacing, composition and telling a story. What saves him, and his movie, is his ability to tell good anecdotes.
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