Chan Is Missing

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Chan Is Missing
Directed by Wayne Wang
Produced by Wayne Wang
Written by Wayne Wang
Isaac Cronin
Starring Wood Moy
Marc Hayashi
Music by Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo
Cinematography Michael Chin
Edited by Wayne Wang
Distributed by New Yorker Films
Release dates
  • April 24, 1982 (1982-04-24)
Running time
80 minutes
Language English/Cantonese
Budget $22,000[1]
The film's director and producer, Wayne Wang

Chan is Missing is an Asian-American film produced and directed by Wayne Wang in 1982. With the help of his friends, he was able to produce this film on a $22,000 dollar budget. The film is based on Charlie Chan films, which are about a fictional Chinese detective who appeared in more than four-dozen films beginning in 1926. Charlie Chan was a ‘good guy’ compared to the predominant Asian Villain roles, but was still foreign and submissive.[2]

The reason for the success of Chan is Missing is that it was for an art-house audience. Wayne Wang wanted, “[Chan is Missing] to play at festivals and college campuses,” showing that he didn’t care for it to become big, but had other hopes for it. The audience reacted to the film differently, depending upon their race. A Chinese American said the movie was written for a white audience because “…there being so much explaining, so many footnotes...” says Lem. Also according to Sterrit we see that “…its initial audience has not been an ethnic one, Chinese viewers are being wooed through newspaper ads…” Furthermore, the Asians were ‘wooed’ to watch the film by the white reviewers who reviewed the movie in the Asian press, therefore raising questions about whom the film catered to.[3]


Jo and Steve are looking for Chan, who has suddenly gone missing. Chan owes them money but he is nowhere to be found. Jo and Steve's own life stories become revealed as they search in San Francisco’s Chinatown and meet with Chan’s friends. They talk to a Chinese restaurant chef who tells them Chan went to China. Then they meet up with Chan’s ex-wife, whom Jo did not know about. She tells him they divorced because Chan didn’t want to be American. They also visit a language center where Chan used to go, but the teacher says Chan didn’t want to assimilate. Later they find out that Chan was in an argument with an older fellow about the placement of the Chinese flag. They eventually suspect Chan may have murdered someone because they find a newspaper clipping about the homicide in Chan’s coat pocket, and Jo finds a gun in Chan’s car. These leads get Steve and Jo nowhere and they never really find where Chan is. But they do get their money back through Chan’s daughter, Jane. The film ends with pictures of the streets of Chinatown, as Jo contemplates how each person they met saw a different person when they looked at Chan -- and each person had a different theory about his disappearance, based on that view. Chan’s Identity is never revealed.[4]

Critical reception[edit]

Chan is Missing has been named the first critically acclaimed Asian American film.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film 3 out of 4 stars and wrote that the film is "whimsical treasure of a film that gives us a real feeling for the people of San Francisco's Chinatown" and it "has already become something of a legend because of the way it was filmed" that it demonstrates a "warm, low-key, affectionate and funny look at some real Chinese-Americans" and went to say "almost without realizing it, we are taken beyond the plot into the everyday lives of these people."[5]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times said in his review that "Chan Is Missing is not only an appreciation of a way of life that few of us know anything about; it's a revelation of a marvelous, completely secure new talent."[6]

Peter X. Feng believes the success of this movie was through, “the art-house audiences and brought the Asian Americans into the theaters.” He also states that, “Reviews in the Asian American press often simply advertise the screenings; but the lengthier reviews usually refer to how white reviewers see Chinese Americans and how Asian American texts are received by non-Asian audiences.”[7]

Themes and Analysis[edit]


Through the use of sound the music creates an atmosphere, which enhances the film. The part where Jo starts to get paranoid is heightened by the ominous and mysterious music that is used. There is also the part where Jo and Steve go to the Manilatown center and during their conversation you hear loud background noises when the camera is pointed at the speaker. You get confused as to what he is talking about because of the sounds and there is an un-joining of the speaker and subject.

In another scene where Jo goes to Chan’s wife’s house, there is also a part where Jo and his wife are talking but things cannot be heard because of the music that is playing in Jane’s room. These instances convey a mystery because we do not know what has been said and are curious as to what the conversation was talked about. In American films we see that the eerie music that was used is prominent in alien films and the unknown conversation was unnecessary to understand. Therefore suggesting that Chinese American films are forever foreign to the world.


The whole film has a role of absence because in the end we do not know where Chan is. Jo and Steve get the money back, but all the clues that they found did not lead them to anything. There also were things that did not match up because many of Chan’s friends had different stories to tell of Mr. Chan, but none of them had the same view of him. In the end we never really know what Chan looks like because even at the end of the film Jo and Chan are in a picture together, but Chan is covered by a shadow.

The absence, ambiguity and lack of definite character are like a donut hole and it is the middle of the hole that is defined by absence. The donut is a term used to explain Asian Americans. A donut is considered a donut because of the empty hole in the center. The hole represents an open-ended mystery to look for. For example, in the film we find out that Chan’s friends have all these different views of Chan from being a patriot to Chan being a political activist to Chan being a paranoid person. All these different characteristics only widen the hole that Jo was trying to fill. In Feng’s article about “Becoming Asian American” he quotes, “Chan is Missing’s, lack of closure is a manifestation of the process of becoming.” If they found out Who Chan was, the hole of the donut would have been filled and Chan would have ‘became’ something. Overall, the donut is conveyed as being ‘Asian American’ because there are many possibilities of ‘Asian American’ identity, which keeps evolving.[3]

Awards and recognitions[edit]


  1. ^ a b Wayne Wang -- He Made The Year's Unlikeliest Hit: Wayne Wang By TONY CHIU. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 30 May 1982: D17.
  2. ^ “Chan is Missing”. Retrieved 2014-12-10
  3. ^ a b “Becoming Chinese American, Becoming Asian American: Chan is Missing”. Retrieved 2014-12-14
  4. ^ “Chasing Chan: Asian American Cinema and Beyond”. Retrieved 2014-12-10
  5. ^ "Chan is Missing". Roger Retrieved 25 March 2014. 
  6. ^ [1] Film review. Last accessed: March 25, 2014.
  7. ^ "Chan is Missing". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 25, 2014. 

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Chan Is Missing: A Film By Wayne Wang, With Introduction and Screen Notes by Diane Mei Lin Mark (Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1984), ISBN 0-910043-06-X