Chan Is Missing (1982)


(director/writer/editor/producer: Wayne Wang; screenwriters: Isaac Cronin/Terrel Seltzer; cinematographer: Michael Chin; music: Robert Kikuchi; cast: Wood Moy (Jo), Marc Hayashi (Steve), Lauren Chew (Amy), Peter Wang (Henry the Cook), George Woo (George); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: R; New Yorker Films; 1981)

A delight.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Chan is Missing is Wayne Wang’s first feature film as a solo director. After attending college in San Francisco, Wang worked in Hong Kong television before pursuing his film career in America. He shot this low-budget feature for about $22,000 and in 16mm black-and-white. It’s a film about identity, assimilation, the generation gap, and the differences between those Chinese born in America with those recent arrivals who are born in China. What seems at the start like a Charlie Chan detective story, instead turns out to be a search for a perspective on what it means to be Chinese-American in modern times. The search itself is the thing, rather than solving a crime over stolen money. It’s richer as an authentic atmospheric piece, with some zany comic moments and some sadly touching ones and quirky characters, than it is as a full-blown drama. The story is uniquely diverting, with a voice-over by Wood Moy explaining how the search is going, but its fault is that the story is never fully developed as it wanders through the Chinatown streets in all directions and in a clunky manner.

It’s set in the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, where two Chinese-American cabdrivers, both born in America, Jo (Wood Moy), a middle-aged man, and his chatty nephew younger partner Steve (Marc Hayashi). They are searching for a recently arrived immigrant, a fast operating Taiwanese businessman friend, Chan Hung, who is missing with $4,000 of their money they gave him to hold for a taxi medallion they intended to buy. The mysterious Chan Hung is never seen onscreen, and we only learn details about him through Jo’s voice-over.

The search takes them to Chan’s estranged wife, an Americanized lawyer, who laughs Chan off as someone who can’t change because he’s “too Chinese.” The more they learn about the man, the more befuddled they become, as they hear rumors he might have returned to Taiwan, has business ties with Communist China, was involved in a scuffle between rival political sides during a New Year’s parade, was guilty of a minor traffic violation on the day of his disappearance, and the clues go on and on without getting them closer to finding Chan.

It’s breezy and warmly done, a low-key comedy that takes you into an ethnic group that has rarely been captured on film in such a revealing way. A true indy film, and a delight.