by Anthony King
In the third act of Wayne Wang's neo-noir, Chan Is Missing, Steve says, “Why you trippin' so heavy on this one dude?” Jo responds in a somewhat exasperated tone, “Because he's my friend.” That's not entirely true. The titular Chan is an unseen man that has caught the attention of Jo, not only because Chan ran off with his money, but because the story of Chan turns out to be a parable about Chinese people. “What’s not there seems to have just as much meaning as what is there. Nothing is what is seems to be. I guess I’m not Chinese enough.” Jo wraps the film up succinctly.
Chan Is Missing is an ultra-indie, noir-comedy co-written and directed by Wayne Wang (Slam Dance, The Joy Luck Club, Maid in Manhattan). It stars Wood Moy as Jo and Marc Hayashi as Steve, an uncle/nephew team of entrepreneurs who want to sub-lease a cab license from an independent owner in San Francisco's Chinatown. The catch is that the two men have to pay in cash – $4,000 to be exact – and have gone through a middle man named Chan Hung who has since disappeared. This is where the film opens, just after a montage of the Chinatown streets and its people set to a parody version of “Rock Around the Clock” with lyrics about the hardships of Chinese economics sung in Mandarin.
The two entrepreneurs' investigation leads them all throughout Chinatown where we meet several interesting characters. Like any good mystery or noir, each character we meet leads us a little closer to the subject for whom we're searching. First we meet a young law student who was supposed to represent Chan in a court appearance for a minor car accident. She's a fast-talker who loses Jo and Steve halfway through her dissertation about Chinese linguistics and how it compares to the English language. We're then led to the kitchen of The Golden Dragon, where we meet a cook who always wears a “Samurai Night Fever” t-shirt, chain smokes, and constantly sings “Fly Me to the Moon” while cooking order after order of sweet and sour pork. We learn he and Chan studied aeronautical engineering together at university in China, moved to America, but neither could find work. “Americans don't want you to work in aeronautical engineering. They want you to make spring rolls,” bemoans the cook, hitting us with hard truths.
At 80 minutes, the film is jam-packed with mystery, comedy, and history. What I've written above is just the tip of the iceberg of what you'll get in this proto-mumblecore film with a touch of documentary. While I assume this film is meticulously scripted, you'd never know by the improvisational quality of the actors, especially the scenes with Moy and Hayashi together (which is most of the movie). Between the use of a handheld camera, the black and white photography, the obviously-stolen-shots on the streets of Chinatown, and the casual conversations you see the influence of Woody Allen (Manhattan) and Claudia Weill (Girlfriends). And I wouldn't doubt if Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha) or the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair) also pulled some inspiration from Wang.