Jo, a middle-aged American-born Chinese ("ABC") cab driver and tinkerer, goes in with his nephew Steve to buy a new taxi license. They've found a bargain-priced one on the gray market, but they have to go through recent immigrant Chan Hung to get it. After they entrust him with their total savings of four grand, Chan, yes, goes missing. In search of the lost fresh-off-the-boater ("FOB"), Jo and Steve pound the pavement of San Francisco's Chinatown talking to everyone who knew Chan: cooks, grad students, businessmen, politicians, professors, his wife. But it soon emerges that all of these friends and acquaintances seem to be describing a different person. A fatal scuffle at a parade adds even more confusion to the proceedings.
This movie is so good. It's good in the way that any 16mm, black-and-white, unpaid-actored, no-license-to-shoot movie is good when it's made by a bunch of people who really care about the project and helmed by a director with cinematic skill to burn. It makes me wonder when, exactly, Wayne Wang took a wrong career turn — and why. This and Smoke — and maybe Chinese Box, which I haven't seen but which seemed good when Jeremy Irons talked to Charlie Rose about it — rocket him straight to the top one percent of filmmakers, to be sure. But Anywhere But Here? Maid in Manhattan? Last Holiday? Perhaps the real Wayne Wang is dead, replaced by an automaton: it walks like a man, yet it makes Because of Winn-Dixie. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers looks neat, though; hope springs eternal.
The appropriate clichés would be to call Chan is Missing "immediate", or maybe "raw", which, though tired, do get at the central reality of the film as well as the energy with which it conveys that reality. When Jo and Steve walk down the street plotting their next move, they're walking down actual Chinatown streets while actual Chinatown people — no hired extras here — pass by. The individuals they visit aren't actors; they're real members of the Asian-American community that Wang and his theater troupe buddies happened to know. They're not reciting lines; they're doing improv. That "Samurai Night Fever" t-shirt is real. That bad comb-over is real. And when a crowd of dancing old Filipinos shows up, boy howdy, you can rest assured that they're real.
But as much as I love reality, reality isn't enough; if it were, Andy Warhol's Empire would be the pinnacle of cinematic experience. I also happen to hold aesthetics near and dear to my heart, but a well-expressed aesthetic sensibility and nothing else doesn't do it for me either. The best films — hell, the best art of any kind — combine verisimilitude and aesthetics. "Real" and "stylized" are, to my mind, not mutually exclusive descriptors. Chan is Missing is real, and it's also stylized.
It's all the more impressive that Wang and co. achieve a distinctive look, feel and mood with severely limited resources. They may be using a 16mm camera and black-and-white film, but they wring that gear for beauty for all it's worth. San Francisco is not a non-photographed-to-death city, but I feel like this film gives a few views of it that I've never seen before, or at least have never been presented as strikingly before. (If you don't believe me, check out the shot with Jo's car parked below the Golden Gate. I just dare you to tell me that's not stunning. If you try, I will laugh.) With its style, the movie establishes a distinctive mood, and through it lets the viewer catch a glimpse of a one-of-a-kind place and one of its its even one'er-of-a-kind subcultures.
Another plausible, if broad metric of quality film is to what extent it makes the viewer want to make a movie of their own. I'd be shocked — shocked, I tell you — if Chan is Missing hasn't inspired at least one or two generations of aspiring auteurs to take up the camera, whether or not they've got money, filmmaking experience, cordoned-off locations or professional actors. Among near-zero-budget projects, it's in a class above Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi and Kevin Smith's Clerks in that it really embraces what it is — "stands on its own two feet", to whip out another cliché. It's more in the league where you'd find Charles Burnett's early pictures; they're not just indicative of potential filmmaking skill; they're realized filmmaking skill.
15. Realism of material and aesthetic stylization can and should be combined. Keeping the subject matter of a work true to life is important. Crafting a work with a solid, expressive sense of aesthetics is also important. But one isn't much without the other! Realism absent aesthetics can be bland can formless, while aesthetics absent realism can be false and empty. Wayne Wang's Chan is Missing, Tim Roth's The War Zone and most of Abbas Kiarostami's films and Haruki Murakami's novels do this especially well.