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Film / Chan Is Missing

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"This mystery is appropriately Chinese: what's not there seems to have just as much meaning as what is there."

Chan Is Missing is a 1982 film directed by Wayne Wang.

A middle-aged Chinese-American man named Jo is a taxi driver in the Chinatown district of San Francisco. Jo and his young nephew Steve, also a taxi driver, decide to go into business for themselves by buying a taxi medallion (that is, a license to run a taxi business). They ask their friend Chan Hung to help arrange the deal, and give him $4000 for the license. Chan then disappears. Jo and Steve, who want their money but are also concerned for their friend, start searching Chinatown for him. Their detective work leads them all over Chinatown, where they meet a wide variety of characters who together form a portrait of Chinese-American life.

Made on a budget of $22,000, most of which came from a government grant. Famous as the first film made by Asian Americans to get wide distribution in the United States (1916's The Curse of Quon Gwon was only screened twice). Wayne Wang has since gone on to direct big-time Hollywood productions like Maid in Manhattan and The Joy Luck Club.



  • Allegory: Eventually it becomes clear that Chan is less an individual than a symbol for the Chinese-American community in all its variety. Jo lampshades this near the end of the movie when he remarks on how the many people they talked to about Chan have differing memories about him.
    "Steve thinks that Chan Hung is slow with it, but sly when it comes to money. Jenny thinks that her father is honest and trustworthy. Mrs. Chan thinks her husband is a failure because he isn't rich. Amy thinks he's a hard-headed political activist...Presco thinks he's an eccentric who likes mariachi music."
  • Anticlimax: The mystery is never solved! Eventually Chan's daughter looks up Jo and Steve and returns their $4000, which Chan apparently gave to her. But we never find out where Chan is or why he disappeared or even if he's still alive, or whether or not Chan had any connection to the murder after the Chinese New Year parade. Jo gives up looking. Justified in-universe as the film refers often to the role of mystery and ambiguity in Chinese culture and how what is not seen is just as important as what is seen.
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  • Bilingual Bonus: In the original theatrical cut none of the Chinese dialogue was subtitled. The film opens with a rollicking cover of "Rock Around the Clock" in Cantonese—except that the lyrics have the singer complaining about how the price of rice and soybeans keeps going up.
  • Culture Clash: A theme of the movie. Chan's lawyer, who also can't find him, recounts how Chan landed himself in court on a traffic violation. It seems an officer pulled him over for not stopping at a stop sign. The officer, a white man, asked directly "Did you stop at the stop sign?" in the Western manner. Chan replied more indirectly in the Chinese manner with a rambling story about how he came to the stop sign and where he was going. This irritated the officer, who was looking for a yes/no answer, and Chan wound up having to go to court.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Due to the $22,000 budget, lending the movie a gritty cinema-verite style.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: The film ends with Jo musing about the contradictory things he's found and the fundamental unknowability of Chan Hung. The last line of the movie is Jo saying "Here's a picture of Chan Hung, and I still can't see him." The movie then shows a Polaroid of Chan and Jo standing next to each other, with Chan's face hidden by the shadow from an awning. Then the credits roll.
  • Familiar Soundtrack, Foreign Lyrics: The movie opens with a cover of "Rock Around the Clock", with lyrics in Cantonese.
  • Film Noir: The film eventually becomes this as Jo finds some evidence that Chan may have been involved with a murder that arose out of an argument between supporters of mainland China and supporters of Taiwan at a Chinatown parade. There's a gun, there's ominous music, there's a mystery woman who may be Chan's mistress. Jo becomes paranoid that he's being followed. He even gets a mysterious phone call telling him to stop asking questions about Chan. Subverted in the end when the mystery doesn't go anywhere and is never solved (see Anticlimax above).
  • The Ghost: Chan. Much sought after, discussed at length, never seen.
  • Jump Cut: Used for a shot at the end of the movie where a man who may or may not be Chan is seen loitering on a street, as several Jump Cuts show him in slightly different positions; the last cut shows that he has disappeared.
  • Living MacGuffin: The whole story involves Jo and Steve trying to find the missing Chan, both to get their money back and (at least on Jo's part) also to confirm that he's all right.
  • Narrator: Jo narrates the whole film in a wry tone.
  • Shout-Out: A subtle one to Vertigo as Jo gets paranoid while walking down the streets.
  • Significant Name: "Chan" is an allusion to the Charlie Chan franchise, which was full of Western stereotyping and had a protagonist played in Yellowface by a white man. Leads to Double-Meaning Title, as while Chan Hung is missing from the movie, crude stereotypes like Charlie Chan are missing from this film.
  • This Is Reality: Near the end Jo encounters yet another acquaintance of Chan's. He says wryly that "If this were a TV mystery, an important clue would pop up at this time and clarify everything." Sure enough, the man that he talks to, while saying some interesting things, does not impart any new information that solves the mystery.
  • The Unsolved Mystery: Chan's disappearance is never solved.
  • Worthless Foreign Degree: Frank, who Steve and Jo find cooking dumplings in a restaurant kitchen, complains about how he got a degree in aeronautical engineering back in China. Later events show that Frank is being disingenuous as he actually owns that restaurant, and several others, and is quite well off.