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[FILM] Wayne Wang Is Missing

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  • chiayuan25
    Wayne Wang Is Missing The vanished promise of his early films. By Hua Hsu Slate Posted Thursday, March 30, 2006, at 4:34 PM ET Many filmmakers spend their
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 31, 2006
      Wayne Wang Is Missing
      The vanished promise of his early films.
      By Hua Hsu
      Posted Thursday, March 30, 2006, at 4:34 PM ET

      Many filmmakers spend their lives working through that one perfect
      idea—the one that visits them when they are young, wide-eyed, and
      stoked with the belief that they can do anything. Some succeed, some
      fail, and others spend their careers making the same film over and
      over, hoping to realize the vision that has haunted them so. In the
      case of Wayne Wang, the end came too soon. Wang's CV testifies to
      one of the strangest career arcs of any current American filmmaker.
      His first two films, Chan is Missing (1982) and Dim Sum (1985), were
      brilliant, patient, edgy meditations on the well-worn theme of the
      immigrant experience. (Both films have recently been reissued on
      DVD.) But some 20 years later, Wang is much better known for lighter
      fare: Among his most recent efforts are the feel-good, scruffy-dog
      tale Because of Winn-Dixie and the J. Lo vehicle Maid in Manhattan—
      an immigrant's tale of a different sort.

      Wang's own story begins in California's Bay Area at the tail end of
      the 1960s. He arrived there from his native Hong Kong just in time
      to witness the shedding of old skins and the birth of new
      identities. Wang studied film at the California College of Arts and
      Crafts, acquiring a taste for experimental methods. Outside his
      window was theater of a different sort: strikes and protests that
      appealed to his idealism, but not to his sense of history—he had
      come to America to study film, only to wander into a movement-in-
      progress. The term "Asian American" was a freshly coined replacement
      for the creepy, old-world categorization of "Oriental." It was now
      up to this young community, teeming with passion and theories, to
      figure out what that term meant.

      Wang returned to Hong Kong to work in television, but he moved back
      to the D.I.Y.-friendlier Bay Area in the late 1970s. Studio life
      frustrated him: There were films he needed to make. After working on
      some shorts and local documentaries, he began putting together Chan
      is Missing in late 1979. He wasn't quite sure what it was going to
      end up being—it was originally intended as a "semi-documentary"—but
      he possessed a basic vision: He would let Chinatown represent
      itself. (Up until that time, the most famous filmic rendition of
      Chinatown was Roman Polanski's Chinatown, which invokes the district
      as a shadowy noir signifier, rather than a place populated by actual
      people.) A mix of local oddballs and theater troupers would
      improvise their way through Wang's threadbare script.

      Released in 1982 to great acclaim, Chan follows Jo (Wood Moy) and
      Steve (Marc Hayashi), two San Francisco Chinatown cabdrivers, as
      they reconstruct the last days of Chan Hung, a friend who has
      vanished with $4,000 of their money. Chan had only recently arrived
      from China, while the squat, lonely Jo and the smack-talking Steve
      were born and raised stateside. The pair settle into a loose,
      Charlie-Chan-and-Number-One-Son relationship, and the mystery slowly
      unfolds according to noir conventions: Somewhere on Grant Avenue—
      enveloped by fog and busybody merchants—awaits a mysterious woman,
      an envelope plump with cash, and something resembling the truth.

      Characters squawk over each other and scenes descend into hazy
      communication breakdowns, like Altman juggling three different
      languages. Long stretches of conversation hang without translation,
      and those who don't speak both Mandarin and Cantonese are left to
      rely on affect and expression to parse clues from riffs. (The DVD's
      default setting provides subtitles.)

      There is an acknowledgment of just how tense and mysterious
      Chinatown can be, but there is also a joyful tenderness when Wang
      lingers on a posse of ancient Filipinos at a community center
      shuffling to a Los Lobos record, or when an extended scene is
      dedicated to a chain-smoking cook wearing a form-fitting Samurai
      Night Fever T-shirt. The cook greets each order of sweet-and-sour
      pork with virginal disbelief: "I really don't get it. Is it really
      that good?" he scoffs before taking a huge swallow of milk. He gives
      Jo and Steve no hint of where Chan is, but his spirit—the fact that
      the cook in the shadows, making your food, could be this charismatic—
      tips you into a larger mystery. Maybe there is no Chan.

      Steve and Jo piece together an incommensurable sketch of Chan
      Hung: "Too Chinese"; a lover of cookies and mariachi music; a fierce
      anti-Communist; a murderer or extortionist; the inventor of "the
      first word processing system in Chinese"; prideful, quiet, and
      secretive; and "Don Rickles in Chinese." He reminds Steve of his dad
      ("Fucking embarrassing!"), and he reminds Jo of his estranged, fresh-
      off-the-boat wife. By the end of the film, when Chan's daughter
      hints at his whereabouts, you barely care. Chan is Wang's white
      whale. The film is dedicated to Wong Cheen, who Wang admits is "more
      of an abstract person."

      Bravely open-ended, Wang's Chan accomplished something rare: It
      celebrated and reveled in the profound shapelessness of identity.
      Identity is something communities imagine together, a reality
      encoded in the all-together-now production of the film itself.
      Twenty years later, Wang's debut feature is still subtler and more
      provocative than most films about racial or ethnic conundrums; it
      certainly feels more truthful in its ambiguity.

      Wang honed this insight in his second feature, Dim Sum. It is a
      graceful and surprisingly dark family drama about the quotidian
      scrapes of a more entrenched circle of Chinatown inhabitants: men
      too old for existential crises, serious women who only laugh at
      jokes in Chinese, and the children who take in "American culture
      through the peephole." It is a tense, fraught version of the
      predictable generational conflicts that powered Wang's controversial
      1993 adaptation of Amy Tan's mothers-and-daughters melodrama The Joy
      Luck Club. Despite that film's success, it felt compromised. Instead
      of the subterranean fears and internalized anxieties of his earlier
      films, Joy Luck Club offered something very different: the
      possibility of cheery resolution.

      With the success of Joy Luck Club and Smoke (1995), Wang graduated
      to higher-profile projects in the late-1990s, including another
      mother-daughter comedy, Anywhere But Here (1999), and this year's
      remake of the seize-the-day classic Last Holiday. His recent films
      seemed to ignore the rich themes of his earlier works, as his videos
      lapsed out of print. (Curiously, he does not appear in the bonus
      interviews for either DVD.) To many, Wang's journey from Chan—still
      considered the pinnacle of Asian-American filmmaking—to his current
      projects seems puzzling. But the re-release of his two best films
      confirms Wang as a man out of time. Perhaps he found Chan—and
      himself—too soon.

      Hua Hsu is a writer and student living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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