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Chan Is Missing (The Criterion Collection)
As an Immigrant to the USA, I can sympathize with the inner conflict that almost all immigrants have when it comes to living in the unique cultural melting pot that is this country. How much do we assimilate to American culture and leave our past identity behind? How many of us are immigrants, and how much is a citizen? And what does the concept of American culture mean anyway, when the point of the country is that it's made up of various different cultures and races that (hopefully) believe in an ideology of democracy and personal freedom?
The two protagonists of Wayne Wang's ultra low budget DIY 1982 noir/drama Chan is Missing, the comical uncle-nephew duo Jo (Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayashi), meditate on these questions as they go on a wild goose chase across San Francisco's Chinatown, looking for their friend Chan who suddenly disappeared with the money meant for Jo's taxi business.
Where Chan is and what the various different mysteries uncovered about Chan's identity will lead the audience is irrelevant to Wang and his film. Like many immigrants, Chan has to be a different kind of person depending on who he's dealing with. To his neighbor, he's a mad and violent political activist. To his family, he's a solid family man. To people in Chinatown, he's an immigrant too old to assimilate to American culture (There's that vague term again).
Jo sympathizes with why Chan has to put on many different faces in order to survive in a different country, even while surrounded by ostensibly his own race and his own people. That is because Jo is also in the middle of the same conflict. Even though he was born in the USA, the white Christian-dominated society never made him feel fully at home.
Steve doesn't grasp Jo's obsession with understanding who Chan really is, since he considers himself a fully assimilated American. Yet, during the best monologue of the film, he also openly admits that he will probably always be seen as a foreigner regardless of how "American" he feels and acts.
Wang is a director who's always emphasized character and theme over plot. So it makes sense that he uses the noir trappings of his film as a mere jumping-off point to explore these themes. Yet this isn't an "eat your cinematic vegetables" kind of classic indie. The banter between the two protagonists and the various kooky characters they encounter are oftentimes naturally hilarious and engaging.
Chan is Missing was shot with a shoestring budget over the weekends and no one got paid upfront. This DIY attitude is clear through the film's black and white and grain-filled photography. The film has never looked as good as it does with Criterion's 1080p transfer. Instead of scrubbing the grain digitally, Criterion decides to represent the true form of the film with warts and all. This makes the presentation feel authentic and full of noir contrast.
The lossless mono track is fine when it comes to dialogue. This was a very small production so whatever issues with the audio feeling tinny or lacking range are because of the original audio track. Otherwise, the presentation gets the job done.
Is Chan Still Missing?: This is a delightful 2005 featurette that reunites the two main actors and showcases the indelible chemistry that made the film work so well in the first place.
Wang and Ang Lee: The two legendary Asian directors talk about the hardships of making films about their cultures in America.
Wang and Hua Hsu: Wang's conversation with the film critic gives more details about the film's production.
Wang and Dennis Lim: Wang's conversation with the film programmer digs into his overall career as an Asian-American filmmaker in Hollywood.
We also get a Trailer.
Chan is Missing is a very low-budget noir that exposed America to realistic depictions of Asian-Americans in mainstream cinema. Aside from being a seminal work in American indie filmmaking, it's also very funny and equally as insightful.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com