Criterion Prediction #33: Chan Is Missing, by Alexander Miller
Title: Chan Is Missing
Director: Wayne Wang
Cast: Wood Woy, Marc Hayashi, Laureen Chew, Peter Wang, Presco Tabios
Synopsis: Jo and his nephew, Steve, pool their savings to start their own taxi service. Their collective investment of $4,000 is entrusted to Jo’s friend and go-between Chan Hung who vanishes with the money. Jo and Steve try to locate Chan through the various cultural divides in San Francisco’s Chinatown district and the strange political implications that may, or may not have something to do with Chan’s disappearance.
Critique: Low key is the operative term here and Wang’s sleight of hand approach turns our protagonists into an unlikely pair of detectives, searching for the titular man who absconded with their money. Are they angry? Are they out for revenge? No, and the characters channel their amiable attitude thus setting the tone for this well-intended seriocomic odyssey. Jo, the “wise” elder (and unreliable narrator) to his more Americanized nephew Steve encounter all manner of characters in their understated journey. From a shrewd line cook sporting a “Samurai Night Fever” t-shirt, Chan’s family, his bizarre neighbor who only speaks through his door and a chatty social worker/cultural liaison whose explanation of a car accident involving Chan Hung becomes so convoluted it parallels the story all too well. With the non-intrusive ease of a director whose literal investigation mirrors a symbolic investigation, the metaphorical components sound dense but never does the story wander from being smart and comical.
Chan is Missing is one of those special cases of an independent movie that encapsulates a very specific place and time. Tonally, Wang’s film feels like John Cassavetes and Howard Hawks collaborated on a Philip Marlowe adaptation, but the result is a slyly conceived and very original neo-noir.
Shot on a shoestring budget, it’s a small miracle that writer/producer/director Wang incorporated so much into an 80-minute runtime. Like its noir influences (namely The Big Sleep), Chan is Missing involves us in a journey where the destination is relatively inconsequential. Chan, for all we know, might not even exist and, in the Hawksian spirit, we come to enjoy our jocular protagonists simply because they are fun to watch. Chan Is Missing is a great “small” movie that offers a lot and asks for little in return, the wit is matched by its insight in this unobtrusive debut from Wang.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Obviously, The Criterion Collection is very director-centric and it kind of goes without saying that many of their followers (me included) subscribe to the auteur theory as well. While I have all the love in the world for the Fellini’s, Godard’s and Malick’s out there, it can be a treat when you find idiosyncratic directors like Wayne Wang who aren’t really bound to making a certain type of film, but maintain a unique style in their work, as long as you don’t mention Maid in Manhattan.
While Criterion provides a diverse selection of American independents, it seems like the front-running directors in that department are Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson, whose bourgeois caricatures are genuinely funny but lack the punchy realism you’d get from a film like Chan Is Missing. Koch Lorber/New Yorker Films have the rights to Wang’s film and, as we’ve seen before with La Dolce Vita, Criterion is capable of acquiring their titles. So there’s that. I could picture this being one of those “lean” releases from Criterion a la And Everything is Going Fine or Grey’s Anatomy.