The mystery of “Chan Is Missing” speaks equally to the philosophical and psychological

Wayne Wang’s influential postmodern detective story screens at UW Cinematheque on October 16 in a new restoration.

Wayne Wang’s influential postmodern detective story screens at UW Cinematheque on October 16 in a new restoration.

Photo: In a still from “Chan Is Missing,” Jo (right) and his nephew Steve (left) lean against a taxi cab contemplating their next move in their search for the titular Chan. Steve holds a newspaper and cigarette, trying to play it cool, while Jo seems more anxious and puzzled with his hand on his head.

“This mystery is appropriately Chinese. What’s not there seems to have just as much meaning as what is there,” central character Jo (Wood Moy) muses in one voiceover passage in director Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1982). It’s the sort of a sentiment one might imagine narrator Sam Elliott drawling through in the final moments of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), as he twists his moustache, tips his cowboy hat, and stares knowingly into the camera. This revelatory moment in Jo’s search for the titular Chan reveals a sliver of Wang’s genius, rough-around-the-edges blend of postmodern mystery and noir, which influenced the following decades of Hollywood cinema.

Preceding even the Coens’ early works and David Mamet’s portrayal of personal and religious identity crises in Homicide (1991), Wang put a fascinating tilt on a proven cinematic genre in this first Asian American feature film to receive wide theatrical distribution and acclaim. Nearly 40 years after its premiere, UW Cinematheque, in partnership with UW-Madison’s Asian American Media Showcase, is giving Madison audiences a chance to see it on Saturday, October 16, in a new DCP restoration by Strand Releasing.

Wang’s approach here channels the independent spirit of John Cassavetes and foreshadows the elliptical structures that so many American directors like Jim Jarmusch and Andrew Bujalski, came to adapt thereafter. Chan Is Missing‘s title also pays tribute to fictitious Honolulu detective Charlie Chan, who made his first appearance in the novels of Earl Derr Biggers in 1919 before being portrayed on screen by George Kuwa, Sōjin Kamiyama, and E.L. Park in the 1920s.

Director Wang and his writing partners Isaac Cronin and Terrel Seltzer retain that sort of hard-boiled early cinematic essence in gritty 16mm black-and-white. They put their own wry spin on noir by developing the relationship between the equally short and tenacious Jo (Moy) and his more lanky, flippant, self-conscious nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi). The two are scouring every storefront and apartment in Chinatown, San Francisco. They’re trying to piece together the whereabouts of Chan Hung, a business friend who has seemingly run off with money that Jo had saved to sublease a cabbie license so he could realize the dream of becoming his own boss.

In a film with a running time of less than 80 minutes, Wang remarkably creates a kind of kinetic and restless energy with a more focused poetic contemplation. He leans into a scruffy sensibility with short scenes that split the difference between the study of a private investigation and the study of what it means to be a Chinese American. The film begins with a Cantonese version of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock.” That meeting of identities comes through richly in the film’s music choices as well as the through-lines of broad discussion, from a lawyer explaining the difference between English and Chinese grammatical modes that have led to miscommunication (which would become a Jarmusch trademark), to political dialogue about the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, to an ESL teacher recalling the challenges of cultural assimilation (a theme also depicted in the Cinematheque’s recent screening of Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street).

Rather than simply populate a stock mystery plot with an Asian cast, Wang and Chan Is Missing‘s co-writers understand the value in presenting the complex issues of their community. Use of language in the film is particularly open to analysis and could warrant its own separate essay that further studies syntax, lexemes, and even gestures. At one point, Chan’s daughter Xiao Liu (Emily Yamasaki), who goes by her American name “Jenny,” likens Steve’s mannerisms and rhetoric to those of Richard Pryor. In this one comparative quip, she amusingly conjures the cultural melting pot of not only this particular neighborhood in San Francisco but the sort of perception of celebrity in defining self-image and the oft-mentioned assimilation that may have plagued Chan Hung in his decision to split town and, perhaps, the country.

In its intersecting Eastern and Western schools of thought, Chan Is Missing stands up both as a fast and loose plainspoken detective story and as a philosophical yarn that becomes increasingly self-aware. It digs into one man’s splintering characterization that’s revealed by his family, friends, and acquaintances as much as the nature of his existence. This circuitous on-location adventure emphasizes that a film, perhaps like reading or watching a mystery unfurl, is as much about the journey as the destination, even if the destination is perhaps the realization that sometimes we’re simply left with the contradictory, as much presence as absence.

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