"I'm no Charlie Chan."
JO and STEVE are a pair of mismatched Chinese-American cabbies who make like private eyes, hitting the streets of San Francisco (most notably Chinatown) in search of the enigmatic Chan Hong, the man who ripped them off for four grand, in the 1982 indie cult favourite Chan is Missing.
But the search for Chan among Chinatown's shops, bars, transient hotels, restaurants, back rooms and politician's offices, soon takes a metaphorical hop, evolving from a simple detective story set against an affectionate and loving look at a particular sub-culture into a Quixotic search for meaning and identity, spread out over multiple generations, as it applies to the Chinese-American community.
Expanding upon the theme, this good-humored film also serves as a gentle spoof of the Charlie Chan B-flicks, for many a still-divisive symbol of the entire Chinese-American immigrant experience. With the older, middle-aged, American-born Jo taking on the role of the supposedly wiser detective and the younger, impatient Steve, a third-generation immigrant, stepping into the shoes of "the number one son," their search for the elusive Chan Hong, a recent immigrant from China still caught between his old and new worlds, becomes particularly significant.
As does Chan's name itself, which adds an extra layer of meaning to the film's double-barrelled title.
There's something downbeat and noirish in the conclusion, but the film is also cautiously optimistic. And the questions raised along the way ultimately reach far beyond the culture it seeks to explore, and become universally relevant.
Namely, when do we cease to be what we were and when do we become what we are? Or can we somehow, be both?
Chan is Missing was acclaimed director Wayne Wang's first feature movie, made with a $20,000 budget and shot in glorious 16-mm black and white, but it's still got the power to move people. No, as I said before, it's not a P.I. film, per se, but anyone not afraid to go down their own mean streets will enjoy it.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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