Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Salamat, Chan Is Missing

Marc Hayashi, left, and Wood Moy, right, in a San Francisco movie that cost 10,000 times less than the David Caruso movie Jade and is 10,000 times more fucking entertaining.

The following piece was written three years ago as an exclusive article for an aborted print compilation of both a webcomic I drew and several of the posts I've written for this blog, and all the posts that were going to be collected in the book were about lesser-known films I dig. I was going to put the book together by myself and self-publish it, but I ultimately decided not to publish it because I'm not exactly well-known, so no one would want to buy it. I even drew an illustration that would have accompanied the piece, which is a lengthy discussion of a favorite movie of mine, a pivotal work in the history of Asian American cinema that dropped in April 1982 in New York and then three months later in San Francisco.

I was too young to be interested in movies when Chan Is Missing hit the art-house circuit. The only movie I gave a shit about in 1982 was The Great Muppet Caper on HBO. Ten or 11 years later, my tastes in film had matured to the point where I was ready to tackle a black-and-white art-house oddity like Chan Is Missing. I first caught it on KQED, the perfect San Francisco station to watch--with no interruptions, although with lots of audio dropouts that removed the F-bombs--what I consider one of the best San Francisco films, much like how two of my other favorite films, Do the Right Thing and the recently Proopified 1974 Taking of Pelham One Two Three, are great New York films, and how another favorite film of mine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is a great L.A. film.

I've updated the piece about this 1982 classic a bit, and I'm unveiling it for the first time now because it's Asian Heritage Islander American Pacific Month or whatever it's being called this year.

'This mystery is appropriately Chinese. What's not there seemed to have just as much meaning as what is there... I guess I'm not Chinese enough. I can't accept a mystery without a solution.'

Thank you, Chan Is Missing, for recognizing that there are actually Filipinos in San Francisco and for depicting Filipino characters who aren't maids, houseboys or sex slaves. Even though those characters--a philosophical Manilatown senior center manager named Presco (Presco Tabios) and the title figure's elderly friend Frankie (Frankie Alarcon)--don't get a lot of screen time in Chan Is Missing, the sequence they appear in is one of the film's most enjoyable sequences, and it's not just because I'm Filipino, and hey, it's an American film representing us flatteringly!

In director Wayne Wang's 1982 breakthrough film, which he shot in black and white on a $22,000 budget, Chinatown cabbie Jo (Wood Moy) and his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi) are scouring the streets of San Francisco to track down their business partner Chan Hung, who mysteriously disappeared and took with him $4,000 that Jo and Steve need in order to start their own cab company. At one point, Chan's trail leads the amateur sleuths to a Manilatown senior center where Chan is a frequent visitor because he's a fan of the mariachi musicians who entertain the center's manong (elderly Filipino) regulars.

Wang takes a minute to drink in the laid-back atmosphere of the senior center where Chan, a recent immigrant who hasn't had the easiest time assimilating into American culture, felt accepted despite his different nationality. During the interlude, elderly couples are seen dancing to a recording of "Sabor a Mi" by Los Lobos (back when they were known as Los Lobos del Este de L.A.), and we see why Chan felt so at ease at the senior center.

The manongs' enthusiasm for dance and Latin music is infectious, and it's not an unnatural-looking enthusiasm like in that insipid early '90s Pepsi ad where elderly actors pretended to get their dance on to Young MC's "Bust a Move" while awkwardly using phrases they just learned on the set after the director played them a tape of a first-season episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air between takes. The fact that the Manilatown old-timers weren't actors--they were regulars at the actual Manilatown Senior Center, captured by Wang's camera--might have something to do with their natural-looking enthusiasm.

That documentary realism--Wang did location shooting in areas of San Francisco like Manilatown that Hollywood rarely ventures into--is a reason why I'm more taken with Wang's indie snapshot of Chinatown and Manilatown than with a product of the studio era with a similarly all-Asian American cast like the quaint, mostly confined-to-the-studio-backlot 1961 screen version of Flower Drum Song, which Chan Is Missing references in a charming closing montage that's accompanied by the original 1958 recording of "Grant Avenue."

While promoting his 2008 indie films A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska (Wang still makes indies when he's not directing Lifetime channel-friendly studio fare I'm not exactly dying to see), Wang told an interviewer from AsianWeek that he made Chan Is Missing as a response to previous examples of Asian American cinema. "Documentaries and fictional Asian American films were very seriously sort of talking about how we were discriminated against, and how difficult our history was, blah blah blah blah blah, in a way [that] was almost too serious. And almost like perhaps complaining about our experiences. Or trying to be too rah-rah about how positive we have to be," Wang said. "So Chan Is Missing was kinda looking at the complexity of Chinatown in a different way."

Chan Is Missing's impact on Asian American filmmakers or writers, whether they're Chinese or Filipino, is so immense that Wang's film is still being discussed and prodded and poked, primarily in Asian American film classes at universities, while those '70s films Wang was referring to are largely forgotten. It's also a film that--except for a couple of dated-sounding Chinese pop songs on the soundtrack, the occasional sight of poofy hair and the pronunciation of "FOB" (short for "Fresh Off the Boat") as "ef-oh-bee" instead of the presently more common "fob"--looks timeless. (Charles Burnett's similarly shot 1977 indie Killer of Sheep has that timeless quality too.) Sure, the Flower Drum Song movie has its charms (among them are Nancy Kwan's legs), but if I check out a clip from that movie, I know right away I'm watching something from 1961. Chan Is Missing is the Homicide: Life on the Street to Flower Drum Song's NYPD Blue: the scruffier and more improvisational and down-to-earth work that feels more alive and relevant than the better-known, mostly backlot-based and sometimes forced and self-conscious latter work.

Chop suey, suey, what can you do me? I love you.
(Photo source: diaposon)

Many of the things I liked about the first few seasons of Homicide are present in Chan Is Missing: overlapping dialogue, effective location shooting (unlike NYPD Blue, neither Homicide nor Chan Is Missing were shot on an unconvincing-looking backlot), a visual resemblance to the films of Frederick Wiseman and the French New Wave and great chemistry between the actors who play the detectives (Crosetti the Lincoln assassination-obsessed conspiracy theorist and his bored-with-all-the-Lincoln-talk partner Lewis--and to a lesser degree, Bolander and Munch--constantly rib each other and sometimes come to disagreements over their case, much like Jo and Steve). The fact that Wang never directed an episode of Homicide is as puzzling as the central anti-mystery that entices Jo and frustrates Steve.

As Jo picks up clues to Chan's whereabouts, he becomes less interested in recovering the $4,000. What matters to him more is piecing together the life of this friend he thought he knew so well. As we see in some nice moments of showing-rather-than-telling during this voiceover-heavy movie, the middle-aged, divorced Jo leads a rather lonely home life. He understands the isolation and difficulties in assimilating that have been experienced by his older and fobbier friend. But the American-born Steve doesn't sympathize with Chan at all and thinks he's a conniving, homicidal and humorless FOB. "He reminds me of my old man that way, you know? Fucking embarrassing!," grouses Steve, referring to what he perceives to be Chan's lack of a sense of humor whenever he makes a wisecrack in front of Chan (in a voiceover, Jo discloses that Chan, whom he likens to "Don Rickles in Chinese," was actually pretending to be humorless and dumb as a prank on Steve). The younger cabbie (and Vietnam vet) is anxious to report Chan's disapppearance to his friends in the SFPD, whom Jo distrusts ("We don't go to the cops. It's none of their damn business.").

What he's listening to is called a tape recorder, kids. You see, before you were born, we didn't have mp3s...

Everyone Jo speaks to about Chan tells conflicting stories about the mystery man. Chan is portrayed as a patriot who gave up on America and "has gone back to the mainland to serve the people" by his childhood friend Henry, a restaurateur with a love for silly wordplay (he wears a "Samurai Night Fever" T-shirt and jokes to his waiters that they should tell white customers that "we don't have won ton soup--we have won ton spelled backwards: not now!"). (Henry is played, by the way, by scene-stealer Peter Wang, who later directed and starred in the intriguing 1986 culture-clash comedy A Great Wall.) Henry's take on Chan matches Jo's recollection that "Chan Hung used to always talk about how Marco Polo stole everything from us: first pasta, then pizza." In Manilatown, Frankie tells Jo that Chan is worried about his inheritance and thinks Chan went back to Taiwan to settle a property dispute with his brother. A Chinese history scholar considers Chan a genius because he invented the first word processing system in Chinese. Chan's estranged wife is irked by her husband's fobbiness and lack of wealth and refers to him as "too Chinese." Chan's teenage daughter Jenny (Emily Yamasaki), who resents her class-conscious mother, thinks her father's a stand-up guy who's honest and trustworthy.

Jo's investigation of the unseen Chan is essentially a device for Wang to explore the complexities of Chinese American identity, as well as Asian American identity as a whole. If there's any message in Chan Is Missing (and thankfully, the film is far from preachy or didactic, which, as critic Oliver Wang noted in an essay he wrote in 2001, makes Chan Is Missing superior to similar films that attempt to answer difficult questions of "Who are we?" and "What does it mean to be an Asian American?"), it's a message that's more sophisticated than "Stereotypes suck" or "That Chinese cabbie you know so little about while he drives you and your fellow tourists around Chinatown is a human being too": Chinese American identity can't easily be defined, and it's always evolving.

Here's a glimpse of what Marco 'Yo, I'm totes into hip-hop because the last rap record I listened to was the 8 Mile soundtrack' Rubio was thinking to himself while trying to deliver the GOP rebuttal to President Obama's 2013 SOTA Address.

The complexities of Chinese American identity don't sound like a fun subject for a comedy, but the gentle-humored Chan Is Missing makes the subject interesting and debunks a few stereotypes in the process. You don't have to be Chinese to appreciate Chan Is Missing and its references to aspects of Chinese culture. The confusion that can arise in your life when you cross back and forth between one culture and another is a story anybody who's an immigrant or a child of immigrants like Steve or myself can relate to. There's a lot to enjoy in this rather short film, which clocks in at 80 minutes:

* The Chinese pop song that opens the film and is a rant against inflation in China, sung to the tune of "Rock Around the Clock" ("Red beans, barbecue sauce, tea leaves, all the prices rise/Encumber the whole family, low salaries are just not enough/Till there is not one drop left in the soy sauce bottle/That's enough, this price increase has to stop"). The song is one of several bits of Cantonese or Mandarin that went untranslated whenever Chan Is Missing would air on IFC. Luckily, the Chan Is Missing DVD that Koch Lorber Films released in 2006 supplies viewers with English subtitles during the Cantonese or Mandarin dialogue.

* The scene between Jo and Steve and a fast-talking social worker/linguistics expert, who's writing about Chan for a research paper that's supposed to make sense of "the legal implications of cross-cultural misunderstandings," but everything she says makes little sense to Jo and Steve.

* The sight of Henry in the kitchen, sipping a glass of milk and chain-smoking (I bet he smokes while jogging too) and complaining about the popularity of sweet-and-sour pork ribs while receiving multiple orders for the dish. "I really don't get it. Is it really that good?," grumbles Henry in his native tongue.

* The aforementioned "Sabor a Mi" sequence.

* Moy's rapport with Hayashi during the scene where Jo and Steve act out the roles of a Filipino gangbanger and a cholo in a newspaper story they're reading about a Pinoy-vs.-Chicano gang fight and then Jo jokes that Steve's "a two-faced schizophrenic Chinaman" when he hears Steve complain about the same cops he wants to turn to for help.

* The sight of Jenny's friend (whose name, according to the end credits, is "Jenny's Friend") and Jo both getting irritated by Steve while he talks to her and Jenny like a cross between Richard Pryor and the Franklin Ajaye wannabe superhero character in Car Wash and jokingly refers to Jo and himself as "Charlie Chan" and his "Number One Son, The Fly."

* Jo's voiceover in which he declares he's no Charlie Chan and admits to watching Chan movies on TV to laugh at their corny dialogue.

* Steve's dockside argument with Jo about the pointlessness of looking for Chan and rehashing "that identity shit, man. That's old news, man. That happened fucking 10 years ago!"--a dramatic and mostly improvised moment that Hayashi describes in the Chan Is Missing DVD extras as a scene he had always dreamed of performing as an Asian American actor. During a 1982 Sneak Previews review of Chan Is Missing, Gene Siskel showed the scene in which Steve pretends to be a cop in the hotel hallway and said, "That young actor is fabulous. I'd watch him in any movie." Siskel, you weren't alone. I wish Hayashi, who stuck mostly to theater work after Chan Is Missing, did some more movies.

* The elderly Chinese lady on the apartment building balcony who's aware of the camera during the "Grant Avenue" montage and playfully--but stoically--sways back and forth to music that's probably not there. I imagine Chan was also this stoic when he played pranks on Steve, who mistook Chan's stoicness for humorlessness. The footage of the old lady is an amusing example of the film's implication that Chan may be missing, but he's also everywhere.

* Not quite as aware of the camera: the little kid during the Chinatown bus stop montage who scratches his crotch.

Plus I can't help loving a film where a Pinoy is a step ahead of the main character and figures out the key to understanding the titular "mystery" before he does.

In the Manilatown sequence, Presco helps Jo and Steve out on their journey by telling them a parable about Chan's best friend, a crippled mariachi musician who also went searching for something he lost (the ability to play music) and realized the only person who could help him regain it is the man he sees in a puddle in the rain--in other words, himself.

"You guys are looking for Mr. Chan," observes Presco as he delivers Chan Is Missing's most important line. "Why don't you look in the puddle?"

Chan Is Missing: The Animated Series! Coming to Saturday mornings this fall on... oh, shit, wait a minute, networks don't show cartoons on Saturday mornings anymore. It's just all infomercials or animal behavior shows now.

Chan Is Missing is available wherever DVDs are still sold via Koch Lorber Films.

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