Wayne Wang's bizarre career ranges from the austere Joy Luck Club to the indie oddities Smoke and The Center of the World to his more recent sell-out projects, fare like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday. Viewing his breakout second feature, Chan Is Missing, gives you no hint of any of the things to come, but 24 years ago Wang proved himself to be a capable newcomer with this quirky oddity.
There's a story here, but barely. Two Chinese San Francisco cab drivers (Wood Moy and Marc Hayashi) discover their friend, Chan Hung, is, well, missing. This probably wouldn't bother them much, as humans go, they're a pretty disaffected pair. But Chan has $4,000 of theirs, and he's vanished under suspicious circumstances, revolving around something called "the flag-waving incident," which we sort of understand but don't really care about.
That's because, like many of Wang's indie movies, this is a story about people and their environments. Chan's cabbies -- one an older, traditional Chinese man, one a youngster with high hair and a Saturday Night Fever swagger -- are what we in San Francisco would call "characters," the kind of locals that you see on every corner, each an original that's come from a now-broken mold. Moy and Hayashi visit Chinatown back allies and steamy take-out kitchens in search of information about Chan, but what develops isn't a mystery, but rather a look at the city from the inside out. This isn't Fodor's, folks.
Ultimately, Chan remains missing and the movie ultimately feels a little thin. Locals like myself will probably find it eye-opening to see that in a quarter century the city has barely changed at all. Outsiders will probably want to hop on a flight to get here for some dim sum.
The DVD includes a retrospective interview with the two leads.