Take a small, clever film, paste on adjectives like "whimsical," "charming," "endearing," "insightful," and you'll have a movie that many will run away from in droves. For Chan Is Missing, that would be too bad because they'd be missing something whimsical, charming, endearing and insightful.
This was Wayne Wang's first feature movie, made with a $20,000 budget and shot in glorious 16-mm black and white. It's a detective story, sort of. Two cabbies in San Francisco's Chinatown, Jo (Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayashi), discover Chan Hung is nowhere to be found. They had given him $4,000 to invest in a business deal. For the next few days they are going to try and track him down through Chinatown's alleys and side streets, the cheap hotels, the middle-class apartments, the sweating kitchens and the community halls. Jo is the older one, short and a bit heavy, quiet and thoughtful. Steve is young, hip and at times impatient. As they start looking and meeting people, we realize that this is no real detection mystery. We wind up quickly liking the two cabbies, and liking everyone they meet. Before long, we even like what we hear about Chan.
The movie is really not about finding Chan Hung and the missing $4,000. It's all about Wayne Wang's attempt to look at issues of assimilation and identity among Chinese-Americans. He does this with a light hand. The discussion Jo and Steve have with a young lawyer who is trying to describe why her client is in trouble with the police -- because he answered questions in a Chinese way about a traffic accident -- is deadpan, totally confusing to Jo and Steve as well as us, and priceless. In a sweltering kitchen we meet a young short-order cook who wears a Saturday Night Live T-shirt, sings "fry me to the moon," and really dislikes having to keep turning out orders of sweet-and-sour pork. We meet Chan's wife and his friends who are interviewed usually by Jo. We learn some about those who like Taiwan and those who like mainland China. The "flag-waving incident" keeps coming up but no one really knows much about it. Everything is a series of encounters with people of all types in Chinatown, handled with warmth and observant interest. Jo, who has been serving as our narrator, tries in his own way to sum up things. What we're left with is an intelligent and charming movie about how people from one strong culture move and live within another strong culture, and how most of them manage in both.
Did Jo and Steve ever find Chan and their $4,000? You'll have to watch the movie...but that's hardly the point of it, is it?