Every performance is a great performance in Wayne Wang’s indie noir comedy classic.
By Jacob Trussell Published on June 16, 2022
Acting is an art form and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing himself. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column on the art behind some of the best movie roles. In this entry, we examine the fantastic ensemble cast of Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing.
Wayne Wang‘s Chan is missing was somewhat of a cinema sensation when it was first released in 1982. With a budget of $22,000, it was an early example of fiercely independent filmmaking. It also featured a story Hollywood hadn’t told before. Wang’s film gave moviegoers a more accurate picture of the Chinese-American diaspora to counter the stereotypes created by popular characters such as Charlie Chan, the infamous detective from whom the film takes its title. Roger Ebert succinctly summed up the importance of this representation in his original review:
“And we realize… that Chinese Americans, more than many other ethnic groups in this country, are seen by the rest of us through a whole host of filters and fictions. We ‘know’ them from movies and walk-ons in TV cop shows, from the romanticized images of fiction and ubiquitous Chinese restaurants, but we don’t know them at all. She knows this movie. By sharing its characters with us, it opens up a part of America.”
Chan is missing paved the way for more movies to dial in to the real experience of Chinese American communities. We can see its influence in movies like Lulu Wang goodbye to Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians† What makes Wang’s film so special is that he brought out the raw, undiscovered talents in the community exploring his story. Whether it’s the laid-back charm of our gumshoe leads, the quirky choices of the supporting cast, or the ingrained naturalism of the local extras, each actor in this film makes a bold choice and stick to it† That’s a rarity in any movie, let alone with an ensemble cast of relatively unknown actors.
The film follows two taxi drivers, Jo (Wood Moy) and his cousin Steve (Marc Hayashi). They are looking for their friend Chan Hung in the Chinatown district of San Francisco. As the title implies, Chan is missing. Although he owes Jo and Steve a hefty sum of money, they aren’t worried about getting their money back. They are just curious about what happened to their lost friend. As the duo traverse San Francisco in search of clues to Chan’s whereabouts, they encounter several people in his life, all of whom give Jo and Steve a conflicting view of who their friend really was. This plot element underscores the core idea that Wang explores throughout the film. Chan is missing uses the structure of a noir narrative to examine the Chinese American experience through the lens of the disparate identities that exist within one community.
As the film focuses on individual identities, each actor is given the opportunity to fully express their own idiosyncrasies and nuances. Our duo of leads, Wood Moy and Marc Hayashi act like two sides of a generation coin. Because their characters were both born in different generations in the United States, they have different views on how Chinese Americans reconciled with their identities in the mid to late 20th century.
Jo thinks more about the different perceptions of Chan’s identity. Wood Moy delivers his detective-esque musings with relaxed restraint as if taking a page from Elliot Gould’s stoner-esque spin on Philip Marlowe in The long goodbye†
Moy may not express an outer dynamic range like other actors I’ve written about The great performances† But the choices he makes in character are the essence of naturalism. That’s because Moy’s performance isn’t driven by an actor’s over-intellectualization, or even a fictional character’s decision-making. His choices just feel like the choices an ordinary person would make. This allows for easy relativity between the audience and Jo which Moy of course conveys in an extremely captivating performance.
As Steve, Marc Hayashi expresses his individuality as if he were a stand-up giving the best tight five of his life. Hayashi looks for the laughter in every line he has, giving his scenes a sense of cheerfulness and light. As an audience, we can deduce that Steve’s class clown mentality is a defense mechanism for the personal struggles he faces within his community. In fact, some of Steve’s dialogue came directly from conversations he had with Wang about Chinese-American identity at the time. As Wang told The New York Times, “Usually what people say came naturally. I might like to ask them: What do you think Americans really think of the Chinese? [The lead actor] Mark Hayashi used to say, ‘Oh God, this identity’ [expletive] is old news, man.’ I said, ‘Then put it in the movie!’”
Pretty much every scene in Chan is missing introduce us to new characters orbiting the lives of Jo, Steve and Chan. With each of these supporting performances, we’re treated to a veritable showcase of the exceptional talent that emerged from San Francisco’s Chinese-American acting community in the early 1980s.
In the opening scenes, when we are introduced to Jo and Steve, we also meet Jo’s niece Amy (Laureen Chew). Chew is magnetic from the moment she is in the picture. Her performance makes us wonder how much of Amy’s jubilant arrogance the character is, and how much Chew just embellishes parts of herself, because the movie gives her permission to do so. It’s a question that needs no answer when her performance is so confident and charming.
Later, when Jo and Steve are in a cafe, a young woman (Judi Nihei) approaches to inquire about Chan. She then launches a hysterical – and fascinating – monologue about intercultural linguistic misunderstandings. Sure, it’s kind of obvious we’re getting a message from Wang and co-writer Isaac Cronin, but Nihei’s performance is so awkwardly compelling that we overlook the direct language. There’s a thoroughly modern alt-comedy cadence to her line delivery. The way she humorously stutters through a monologue about communication would feel right at home in a show like I think you should leave†
I find no supporting character more engaging than the milk-guzzling, “Fly Me to the Moon” singing chef, Henry (Peter Wang). He has no qualms about proudly expressing his distaste for any item he feels compelled to serve American diners. Despite his humorous disgust, we feel a heavy burden rests on his shoulders. But even despite Henry’s obvious misfortune of being stuck in the only work he can find, Wang’s inner humor comes out. He wisely bursts out at the predictability of Americans with silly humor: “You know what? The next time the Americans order this thing again, say, “We’re out of wonton soup. We spelled wonton backwards: not now!”
Due to the film’s low-budget aesthetic, Chan is missing has a documentary feel to it. This makes each scene look less like a performance and more like a snapshot of real life. We see it when Jo and Steve follow Chan’s trail to a senior center. As the camera slides into the venue, mariachi music fills the air as dancers slap him across the floor. Wayne Wang does not show us a cast of characters, but a real community expressing their own individual identities in the present moment.
Wayne Wang’s film is a beautiful script-noir story, full of themes and metaphors for film theorists to chew on. But Chan is missing really comes alive through the realistic portrayal of a community that Hollywood didn’t explore in 1982. And within that community was a pool of talented actors who made interesting choices regardless of the size of their roles.
Hollywood still considers the lack of robust roles for Asian-American actors. So it is discouraging, but not surprising, that most of the ensemble of Chan is missing never transitioned to bigger careers. But Wang’s film has immortalized their work. Let it be a cinematic reminder of the vast pool of talent that exists in every community outside of Hollywood’s influential bubble.
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Jacob Trussell is a New York City writer. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects and One Perfect Shot. He is also the author of “The Binge Watcher’s Guide to The Twilight Zone” (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next creepy public-access show. Find him here on Twitter: @JE_TRUSSELL (he/him)