Chan is Missing is the story of two cabbies, Jo and Steve, (Wood Moy, Marc Hayashi) who were trying to get a cab driving license. They enlisted the help of a man named Chan Hung, giving him $4000 to obtain the license. Before Chan can get the license, he disappears, taking the $4000 too. Jo and Steve, wanting their license and the $4000 dollars, decide to go find where Chan could be. The resulting journey takes them all over San Francisco Chinatown, through middle-class apartments, a Filipino senior center, Chinese restaurants, and ESL schools. They begin by asking Chan's friend, a restaurant cook with a degree in astrophysics and engineering who hates making sweet and sour spareribs, the restaurant's most popular dish. He says that Chan went back to China, but Jo doesn't believe this. Jo says that Chan would only go back to China once he made an impact on America. Later, Jo and Steve find out that Chan was involved in a traffic accident, where he received a ticket. That same day, Jo and Steve hear about the argument between Chan and another elderly Chinese man that resulted in the other man's death. Chan and the other man had recently been in an argument about which flag should have been flown at an annual parade in Chinatown - the People's Republic of China flag versus the Republic of China's flag. Jo and Steve head to a Manilatown senior center, where they find out that Chan enjoyed eating Hi-Hos and listening to the mariachi music performed there. They find Chan's coat there, with newspaper clippings in the pockets of the story of the murdered elderly Chinese man and of the story of the controversy surrounding the flags. Jo and Steve's search for Chan keeps leading them astray and they hear a different story about him every time. Next, they decide to talk to Chan's wife, an Americanized, headstrong lawyer who said that Chan"was too Chinese" to fully assimilate into America. Ties to Communist China keep appearing as well. Eventually ties to an "other woman" surface, and Jo receives a mysterious call telling him to "stop asking questions about Chan." We never actually find out where Chan went, but his daughter brings $4000 to Steve and Jo to make up for the money. The film has a very ambiguous ending with long shots of deserted Chinatown streets with a scratchy recording of Flower Drum Song's "Grant Avenue."
The great thing about Wayne Wang films is that they are incredibly relatable. You don't even have to be Chinese or Asian-American to enjoy them. Universal messages, people. They work well. Chan is Missing is no exception. However, it does draw attention to the differences in mentality and worldview between Asians from Asia and Asian-Americans. A part of the last 30 minutes of the film act as Jo's monologue about how the reason he couldn't find Chan Hung was because Jo couldn't think like a Chinese-Chinese man. This monologue is said over a montage of iconic yet dismal scenes of San Francisco. Jo was born in America - he found that it was this cultural difference that kept him from finding Chan. And just as Chan can't be found in the city at all, he's also found embedded in the city itself. This is spectacular because it highlights the difference between those who immigrate from Asia and those have Asian heritage and are born in America, something American mainstream media can't even seem to accent now. If you've been keeping up with my blog, you'll realize that this sort of "highlighting" of cultural differences within the Asian-American race is huge.
Scroll to 4:13 for Chan is Missing
The style and feel of the film also gives a boost to its relatability (just making up words here). Most of the shots are hand-held and take place in people's kitchens. There is a distinctive home-movie quality to the film which makes the film way more familiar to anybody regardless of their race. Also, the film has characters speaking both Cantonese and Mandarin. Hello! Haven't heard any Cantonese since... Oh yeah, Double Happiness. Still. It's not all in Mandarin! And it's funny! Funny without making fun of Asians! This film was a huge step in the integration of proper representations of Asian-Americans in the movie industry, even if it didn't really make a big splash at the time.
As dear old Ebert said, this is the first film that doesn't rely on all those handy stereotypes that I've been studying. There are no Fu Manchus, no Lotus Blossom girls, no Long Duk Dongs. There's a few Charlie Chan jokes, but they're all making fun of the "venerable" detective. All of the characters (Jo and Steve, in particular) are portrayed as normal human beings who just happen to be Chinese. The normality of the characters and setting is what make this film really stand out (okay, yeah, the cinematography's great too) - this could have been a film about any particular group of people, and the story would not have had to been altered one bit. Not once does the film mock or fetishize Chinatown or Chinese people - and that's probably because it was directed by an Asian-American director.
I think that when a movie that just so happens to be about Asian-Americans is directed or written by Asian-Americans, the story becomes so much richer and way more relatable. These films end up more authentic because it's not some white director or writer who knows next to nothing about the Asian culture or the experience of Asian-Americans. Those films (Flower Drum Song, anyone?) end up appropriating Asian culture and either making a mockery of it or just representing it in the wrong way (The World of Suzie Wong? The Mask of Fu Manchu?) People always talk about Flower Drum Song as the "first" and the "best." However, it was not authentic. And usually, inauthenticity makes people angry. So what's the best way to capture an authentic picture of the Asian-American experience? Get an Asian-American writer, director - or just Wayne Wang behind the camera.
Just like Joy Luck Club before it, Chan is Missing presents a story with a universal message that just so happens to be about Chinese-Americans. Chan is Missing deals with loss, identity, mystery... you name it. But it's not specifically about Chinese-Americans. Sure, that's a common thread, almost the backbone of the story, but it really isn't the only thing going on in the movie. An example of the Asian-American-ness taking over the plot of a film would probably be Double Happiness. Of course, these aren't even in the same category of films - but they both deal with the subject of being an Asian who has heritage/blood ties to Asia but doesn't fit in there.
Of course, films like this beg the question: Is this a film that just so happens to feature Asian-Americans? Or is this a film made for Asian-Americans?
Keep on Wondering...
What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?