The 1982 film “Chan is Missing” (dir. Wayne Wang) brings into question the complex identities of Asian American characters and the depth of Chinese portrayal on screen. The characters supersede the stereotypical identity brought on by the internalization of racial American ideologies and create a narrative of ever-expanding growth through characters that don’t fit into racist Hollywood tropes.

The story follows the perspective of Jo as he and his nephew Steve attempt to locate their business partner, Chan Hung, after he has gone missing. Throughout, the plot focuses more on Chan’s differing characterizations and interpretations, as explored through the perspective of other people who surround his life, rather than giving a definitive answer of who Chan is.

For example, Chan is defined through several lenses. From being a man obsessed with mariachi music to being an extreme Chinese nationalist, and even a potential suspect in a murder case, the nature of his personality brings to light how Chan represents the diverse Chinese community of San Francisco. The contradictions as to who Chan is, whether a deadbeat husband, an ignorant man smart with money or a respectable father, form a symbol of infinite possibilities for Chinese Americans.

Chan represents Wang’s argument against generic stereotypical Asian characters within Hollywood. A popular stereotype of the time was Charlie Chan, a Chinese detective typically played by a white man donning yellowface. The name of Wang’s film even references the Charlie Chan series and plays on the idea of how Asian individuals represented on screen shouldn’t be reduced to the standards of how white Americans perceive us.

This notion is not just limited to Chan but also encompasses the many characters seen in the film. Personalities such as Henry, a cook who wears a Samurai Night fever t-shirt, likes to sing “Fry me to the Moon” and is obsessed with China, reassert the idea that minority characters (specifically Chinese Americans) don’t have to be subjected to racial comedic relief that highlights the absurdities of their features. They can be complex and interesting individuals with unique personalities or interests. 

Other characters such as the protagonist, Jo, are very human, unlike many of the “Asian characters” created by Hollywood around this time. Jo wants to start a cab business with his nephew to make ends meet. He is not this altruistic model Chinese citizen that your average American expects him to be; rather he is a simple man learning to navigate an environment that not only is disorientating at times but is also constantly in turmoil.

Just like the personalities of the characters, the small details that arise and the background stories that become more prevalent reveal deeper truths about the community around Jo. Through Jo’s investigation, we learn about the disdain that many Chinese Americans have against the People’s Republic of China (PRC). We hear about protests and fights breaking out within the Chinese community that lead to deaths. Throughout the film, different characters voice their views on feeling alienated within both the Chinese and American communities due to the ever-changing landscape of political views.

To add on, a main aspect of the film is the ambiguity that seemingly encompasses Chan’s whereabouts and identity. While a lot of it is due to the differing perspectives of other characters in the film, the sound and language also play a huge role in creating a sense of mystery and confusion for the audience. One example of this is when Jo is talking to Chan’s wife and loud Chinese rock music drowns out the conversation. Another example is that at various times in the initial showings of the film, characters are shown talking in Chinese with no subtitles, creating an effect of disorientation that further emphasizes the Asian American experience and the mystery of Chan.

“Chan is Missing” is a film that beautifully captures storytelling symbolism and utilizes interesting film mechanics to portray its message through atmospheric feeling. I thoroughly enjoyed every second of the movie, and, through several rewatches of the film, found new little details that led to different revelations about each character’s personality.

To me, this movie isn’t so much about following the premise of physically finding Chan who has gone missing, but rather an exploration of complex characters who share a delicate community filled with rich cultural and historical background. This is further emphasized through Chan’s identity being left ambiguous and him being more of a symbol of what it meant to be a Chinese American in 1980s San Francisco rather than an actual character.

Visual Credit: Igorovsyannykov on Pixabay

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