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Cinema pioneer looks back on quietly historic film

March 03,2017 21:20

Indeed “Chan Is Missing” holds an unlikely presence in film history. With a shoestring budget, Wang and a bare-bones, all-Chinese crew with day jobs provided mainstream cinema its first Asian American perspective. In 1995, it was inducted into the ...

“It’s hard enough for guys like us who’ve been here so long to find an identity. I can imagine Chan Hung — somebody from China, coming over here trying to find himself.” So says Jo, an American-born Chinese taxi driver in San Francisco, lamenting the mysterious fate of his friend in “Chan Is Missing,” Wayne Wang’s seminal 1982 debut and the first ever Asian American indie film. Chan’s nephew Steve scoffs, “That identity s—, that’s old news.”
The full exchange, a frank assessment of the complexity of Chinese American personhood, looked clearer than ever Thursday night, March 2, during a retrospective showing at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. The film was shown on a new 35mm print, followed by Wang’s hidden gem, the 1988 short “Dim Sum Take Out.”

The new print, a rare occurrence for a black-and-white film, was a treasured sight for the packed audience, some of whom had only seen it via a fuzzy YouTube version if not during its limited art house run 35 years ago.
“It premiered in one theater in the Upper West Side,” Wang said a week earlier at an interview at a restaurant at the Scarlet Huntington Hotel in San Francisco. “And I walked up there with some friends after dinner, thinking, ‘Oh this is going to be interesting.’ Then we saw the line was literally around the block.”
Indeed “Chan Is Missing” holds an unlikely presence in film history. With a shoestring budget, Wang and a bare-bones, all-Chinese crew with day jobs provided mainstream cinema its first Asian American perspective. In 1995, it was inducted into the National Film Registry.
The film observes cabdrivers Jo and Steve, wandering around San Francisco as amateur detectives searching for their lost acquaintance. But “Chan Is Missing” is a truly unique amalgamation of noir flavor, a cinema verite shooting style and an all-Asian cast pondering American identity and China-Taiwan geopolitics.
The film is also a veritable love letter to San Francisco, where Wang still resides, with much of the film shot on the fly in the streets of Chinatown. During the post-screening Q&A, Wang rambled enthusiastically on the few restaurants in the city still serving authentic Chinese cuisine.
A reflection of the varied spectrum of “Chinese-ness” Wang observed in Chinatown, “Chan” not only spoke on Chinese American identity, but more shrewdly, the confusion and fluidity of it. Aside from simply pushing Asian faces to the fore, it was the first film to depict Asian Americans, let alone Chinese Americans, as three-dimensional, complex individuals rather than the one-note caricatures often dominating the screen (its very title riffs on the popular Charlie Chan film character).
But the endurance of the film’s aesthetic and thematic freshness 35 years later is a testament to both the incredibly daring and inventive nature of Wang’s debut, along with the sad reality of the failed progress of Asian American cinema since.
Representing the Chinese American experience, in its sundry textures, has always felt like Wang’s responsibility and ambition — especially with nobody else willing to do it — among a decades-long career that has spanned from the indie and art house scenes to the Hollywood mainstream (“Maid in Manhattan,” “The Last Holiday”). Yet following the unexpected success of “Chan” and the even bigger “The Joy Luck Club,” the 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s famous novel, nothing ever truly shifted in Asian American representation.
“I pretty quickly realized that the Hollywood people were just kind of flirting with the ‘flavor of the week,’” Wang said in the interview. These days, even coming from an established filmmaker like Wang, notions of Asian leads and stories from Asian American perspectives aren’t seriously considered in industry boardrooms.
Amid the current heightened call for diversity in Hollywood, change seems especially opportune. Yet in a paradoxical twist, part of the problem is mainland China’s own blockbuster interests.
“I would say half of the money going around Hollywood these days is from China,” Wang told the audience. “And the sad thing is that they make films like ‘The Great Wall.’ They have no interest in supporting, let’s say, even ‘The Joy Luck Club.’”
But as insular as studios may remain, Wang puts responsibility even more heavily on the shoulders of the new generation of Asian American filmmakers and audiences to create and support authentic stories.
“You need people who are willing themselves to put something down on paper that they really believe in — a story they have to tell,” Wang said to me at the hotel restaurant. “I look at ‘Moonlight,’ and I go, this guy really needed to tell this story. You’ve got to be in pain.”
Wang, now 68, has continued to lead the way with Chinese American pictures such as 2007’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” and he is developing a television adaptation of “The Joy Luck Club” with a major network. But it’s going to take a collective, aggressive effort, he believes, to produce lasting change.
“Maybe because I’ve been in the industry, and I’m older and I don’t have time to settle for less,” Wang told me. “In my mind, if I do something and I encourage you to do something, we should do something really authentic, really powerful. It’s not like we don’t have the stories to tell. We do.”
As the night closed, an audience member recalled her excitement first watching “Chan Is Missing” for its all-Asian cast.
“And here we are today, 35 years,” she said, unintentionally stating a grim truth. The audience laughed and applauded as Wang replied, “Well, thank you for coming back.”

Brandon Yu is a Bay Area freelance writer.

Online extras

See a trailer of “Chan is Missing”: https://vimeo.com/183893432

See a trailer of “The Joy Luck Club”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nYDMp1LdT8

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