Wayne Wang’s low key charmer turns mystery tropes upside down.
Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing, now available on a gorgeous new Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, doesn’t call out any specific noir films and it doesn’t have to. From its stark black and white cinematography to its wall-to-wall narration, through to the twisting investigation that forms the film’s plot and the 1.33:1 aspect ration that imprisons its characters in a tight square, Chan Is Missing is deep in conversation with the whole of film noir and the tropes that the genre codified and calcified through endless repetition.
One of those tropes is the recurring conception of Chinatown in pulpy tales as a simmering den of mysticism, vice, and mystic vice (there’s a show for you, Michael Mann). Chinatown, movies tell us, is where the seediest of seedy desires are indulged, where there are customs so remote to Western ways of thinking that they may as well be completely alien. Four years after Chan Is Missing was released, John Carpenter put out John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, which treats a white man setting foot in Chinatown as akin to tripping into Narnia.
The characters who populate Chan Is Missing have nothing to do with mysticism and even less to do with vice. Instead, Wang’s characters are exhausted, empathetic, everyday, floundering, awkward people. If all Chan Is Missing did was provide a healthy shredding of decades of othering towards Chinese and Chinese-American people, it would be more than enough.
Fortunately, it’s also a pretty great little movie!
Our nominal hero for this nominal mystery is Jo (Wood Moy), an amiable cab driver who, along with his nephew and fellow driver Steve (Marc Hayashi), entered into a business proposition with his friend Chan Hung. Only problem is, after receiving the $4,000 from the two drivers, Chan promptly disappears and leaves both Jo and Steve in the lurch.
So begins perhaps the most low-key investigation in cinematic history this side of Inherent Vice. Jo and Steve make The Dude look like Sam Spade with their barely-there detective work. Neither man even seems especially put out by the loss of the money, and yet the question of what happened to Chan continues to draw them back down the rabbit hole.
Jo in particular loses himself deeper and deeper into the mystery, eventually beginning to imagine himself living out the paranoid life of a movie detective. Even if Wang never goes so far as to put his characters in real physical danger, Moy’s performance effectively communicates Jo’s mounting disquiet as more and more questions surround his friend and dead bodies and firearms start to pile up. There comes a point for Jo where this “investigation” stops being a fun and exciting distraction from his humdrum life and things get a little too real and sad and distressing. Of course, like any good detective, he has to keep pushing through the disquiet in his mind and soul.
There might not even be a mystery.
Everyone that Jo and Steve speaks to has a different conception of what kind of man the elusive Chan was, and there seems to be no way to reconcile all these alternate personas into a single person. Was he a canny businessman who got a few bad breaks? A lying scoundrel only skillful in swindling others? A loving father? A disappointing husband? A good man? A thief?
Early in the film, a lawyer describes for Jo and Steve an accident involving Chan that became needlessly confrontational because of the vast difference in how Chan answered a question versus how a white police officer asked it. The message seems to be that if a “yes or no” question caused this much trouble, how on earth can these two guys navigate divides like gender and generations?
They can’t, not really, and neither can we. For as much as Chan Is Missing is primarily an agreeable hangout movie floating on affable vibes and grungy rhythms, there is a sad, lonely core to this story that comes to the forefront as we progress, and Wang offers no easy solutions for his characters nor his audience. You begin to wonder if Jo hopes that resolving the question of Chan will allow him to finally make sense of his own identity as a Chinese-American man who doesn’t feel comfortable with either half of that equation.
But this doesn’t make Chan Is Missing feel like some kind of a slog — far from it. It’s lively and funny, its every margin filled with quirky characters and interesting faces that Wang clearly delights in aiming a camera at so they can fill up the frame with personality. Chan Is Missing predicts the chatty, lo-fi pleasures of the likes of Clerks, Slacker, and the films of Jim Jarmusch, films where narrative is a secondary concern at best.
The new disc from Criterion is immaculate, with a transfer that looks gorgeous without sacrificing the grit and grain of the film. Like your Clerks or your Slackers or your Jarmusches, Chan Is Missing is the kind of low budget filmmaking that makes you believe it just might be possible for you to wrangle together some friends and make your own movie.
“It’s just people sitting around restaurants and apartments, how hard could that be?”
The answer is: Very!
But Wang’s touch is so delicate that it’s easy to miss how cannily he and his collaborators play with the tone of their film. Piece by piece, Chan Is Missing gently assembles its haunting final stretch until you are left as confused and turned around as poor endlessly frustrated Jo.
In his terrific essay accompanying the Criterion release, sociology professor Oliver Wang writes of the film’s characters and theme, “These complexities aren’t contradictions. They’re a reminder that identity isn’t a mystery to be solved, only an experience to be lived.”
If only knowing that something didn’t have an answer meant we could stop looking for one.