Chan is Missing is a micro budget movie, and looks it. It’s black and white, handheld cameras, almost certainly populated by more non-actors than actors, very much lacking in bells and whistles.
It’s also an historically important film, in that it treats the Chinese American community (in Chinatown, San Francisco) realistically. Prior to this (1982), movies either ignored Chinese Americans entirely, or limited them to the occasional stereotypical role. Here they are central to the movie—indeed pretty much 100% of the characters—and allowed to be full people.
An older man and a younger man have entrusted $4,000 they have saved to go into business to a man named Chan. Shortly thereafter, Chan disappears.
The older man especially is reluctant to turn matters over to the police, so they do their own investigation like a couple of amateur private eyes, with the older man providing voiceovers very much in the style of a mystery.
The older man knew Chan well enough to refer to him as a friend—though as the investigation proceeds it’s clear they were not particularly close—and is more inclined to trust him, whereas the younger man is more impatient and suspicious. As they travel around Chinatown asking questions of various people, they collect more and more information about Chan, but somehow it never seems to get them any closer to finding him, or at least establishing what happened to him.
So what has happened to Chan? Did he simply abscond with the money? Was he robbed? Was he killed? There had been a killing in Chinatown shortly before this over a political argument between supporters of the Chinese Nationalists and supporters of the Chinese Communists, and they find out Chan had apparently taken a keen interest in the case and perhaps had some involvement in the incident. Is that related to his disappearance? They also discover he had just been involved in a minor traffic incident. Is he needing to lay low because of something the police discovered in his vehicle? Has he fled all the way to China?
The early going of this film is more about atmosphere than story—capturing Chinatown, giving non-actors a chance to be themselves. It’s rather like the scenes in Assassination Tango that are tangential to the plot and really just a chance to sit in on folks talking about the tango and its role in Argentinean culture.
Which is interesting to a degree, and part of what makes this film culturally and historically important, but once the mystery takes over, the pace noticeably quickens and the story itself becomes quite interesting.
As the investigation goes along, the older man especially becomes conscious that what they’re learning goes way beyond the mysterious fate of one man, and speaks to the condition of the Chinese in general in America. In terms of the issues he cared about, his degree of assimilation, his struggles, his dealings with American authority figures, his mixed feelings about China, etc., Chan turns out to be a Chinese American everyman. By investigating him, the older and younger man are investigating themselves, and their community.
There are some clever lines I enjoyed. In reference to Chan’s humor sometimes being misinterpreted and taken literally, the explanation is offered that “His humor doesn’t translate into English. Like trying to translate Don Rickles into Chinese.”
I was mildly surprised at some of the younger man’s slang. He greets people with “What’s up?” and he uses terms like “trippin’,” neither of which I would have guessed were current as far back as 1982.
I’m mostly fine with the investigators’ efforts to understand Chinese Americans in general in order to better understand Chan in particular and what might have happened to him, but there are times the “What does it mean to be Chinese?” or “What does it mean to be Chinese American?” can be taken a little too far. Attributing certain essential attributes to an ethnicity in a case like this is not as derogatorily intended as most stereotyping, but it may well be just as simplistic and inaccurate.
For example, the older man decides that part of what makes Chinese the way they are is their linguistic tendency to focus on negations, on what is not rather than on what is. He illustrates this with an old Chinese fable or joke about a young maiden delivered to a rich landlord or some bad guy. Seeing how desperately she doesn’t want to go through with what is about to happen, he tells her that in the spirit of being sporting he will give her a 50-50 chance to get away. He points to two doors, tells her one leads to his bedroom and one leads out of the building, and tells her she may choose her fate by opening a door. The young woman strides up to one door and says “Not this one” as she reaches to open it.
The idea being that no doubt both doors lead to his bedroom, and he was trying to trick her into thinking she just got unlucky in the one she picked. But because of the essential Chinese characteristic of thinking in terms of negations, she realized the way to sidestep the trick was to state which one she did not choose, and if that was a bedroom door, she’d be entitled to leave.
Cute. Except I saw basically this same trick used by the decidedly non-Chinese John Robinson to outwit alien three card monte hustlers on Lost in Space in the 1960s.
I don’t know that attributing a facility with negations to the Chinese gets us much farther than attributing inscrutability to them.
The movie ends quite abruptly. I almost want to say that’s where they ran out of money, but you can make a case that there are artistic reasons for it to end as it does. I mostly didn’t like it though, and would have preferred to learn more.
This was the first film for director Wayne Wang, who of course went on to do much, much bigger films. I haven’t seen a whole lot of his work, but I love Smoke (and like its companion piece Blue in the Face).
Chan is Missing has the same feel as those. It’s an essentially humane film, a film that tells the story of people it seems to genuinely care for, and wants the viewers to know better and like. It’s a love letter to his people—Chinese Americans.
A clear winner.