Essential low-budget mystery Chan Is Missing (1982), a metaphysical detective story about San Francisco cabdriver Jo’s (Wood Moy) search for truant business partner Chan, leaves viewers with more questions than answers. That’s not a knock on co-writer/director Wayne Wang’s tantalizing neo-noir, but rather a testament to its rare pleasures.
This is the kind of detective story in which the investigation grows out of ambiguous motives that grow more unclear as it goes. Jo doesn’t care about collecting his $4,000 in debts from Chan, and he never fully comes to understand Chan’s reasons for going into hiding. Instead, he gets lost pondering whimsical questions of cultural appropriation and assimilation, like why F.O.B. (“fresh off the boat”) Chinese speakers express themselves more circuitously than English speakers.
Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Smoke) underscores supporting characters’ ambivalent feelings about their marginalized role in American society through arresting anecdotal conversations. Henry (Peter Wang), a fry cook who caters to American stereotypes by wearing a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt while preparing Westernized Chinese food, suggests, with a parodic proverb about a man who asks his reflection for help, that Chan is the only person who could find Chan. And Mr. Lee (Roy Chan), a public defender with mountains of paperwork cluttering his desk, reveals his indifference to his F.O.B. clientele by comparing Chan — the inventor of a Chinese-language computer keyboard — to a skittish hit-and-run victim.
These playful dialogue scenes make us question the basic facts about Chan: He’s a family man (but he ran away from home) and a Chinese nationalist (but he emigrated to America in order to give his family a better life). Viewers must ultimately draw their own conclusions about Chan’s identity, making Chan Is Missing a classic, albeit unsolvable, brainteaser.
Chan Is Missing
Directed by Wayne Wang
Wayne Wang Productions
Opens September 9, Metrograph