Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine the fabulous ensemble cast of Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing.
Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing was a bit of a cinematic sensation when it was first released in 1982. On a budget of $22,000, it was an early example of fiercely independent filmmaking. It also featured a story Hollywood hadn’t really told before. Wang’s film gave moviegoers a more accurate representation of the Chinese-American diaspora to counter the stereotypes created by popular characters like Charlie Chan, the infamous detective the film borrows its title from. Roger Ebert succinctly summarized 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 series of filters and fictions. We “know” them from movies and walk-ons in TV cop shows, from the romanticized images of fiction and from ubiquitous Chinese restaurants, but we don’t really know them at all. This movie knows them. In sharing its characters with us, it opens up a part of America.”
Chan is Missing paved the way for more movies to dial into the genuine experience of Chinese-American communities. We can see its influence in films like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell to Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians. What makes Wang’s film so special is that he surfaced the raw, undiscovered talents in the very community his story explores. Whether it’s the laid-back charm of our gumshoe leads, the quirky choices of the supporting cast or the baked-in naturalism of the local extras, every actor in this film is making a bold choice and sticking with it. That’s a rarity in any film, much less one with an ensemble cast of relatively unknown actors.
The film follows two cabbies, Jo (Wood Moy) and his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi). They are searching for their friend Chan Hung across San Francisco’s Chinatown district. As the title implies, Chan’s gone missing. While he owes Jo and Steve a hefty sum of money, they’re not concerned about getting their dough back. They’re simply curious about what happened to their lost friend. As the duo traverse across San Francisco, searching for clues into Chan’s whereabouts, they come across various people in his life who all give Jo and Steve a contradictory image of who their friend really was. This plot element underlines the core idea Wang explores throughout the film. Chan is Missing uses the structure of a noir story to investigate the Chinese-American experience through the lens of the disparate identities that exist within one community.
Because the film is focused on individual identities, each actor is given the chance to fully express their own quirks and nuances. Our duo of leads, Wood Moy and Marc Hayashi act as two sides of a generational coin. As their characters were both born in the United States in different generations, they have separate views on how Chinese-Americans reconciled with their identities in the mid to late 20th century.
Jo is more thoughtful in making sense of the different perceptions of Chan’s identity. Wood Moy delivers his detective-esque musings with relaxed restraint like he’s taking a page from Elliot Gould’s stonerific spin on Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye.
Moy may not express an outwardly dynamic range like other actors I’ve written about in The Great Performances. But the choices he makes in character are the essence of naturalism. That’s because Moy’s performance doesn’t feel driven by an actor’s over-intellectualization, or even by the decision-making of a fictionalized character. His choices simply feel like the ones a regular person would make. This creates an easy relatability between the audience and Jo that Moy naturally conveys in an utterly captivating performance.
As Steve, Marc Hayashi expresses his individuality like he’s a standup giving the greatest tight five of his life. Hayashi looks for the laughs in every line he has, giving his scenes a sense of buoyancy and light. As the audience, we can infer Steve’s class clown mentality to be 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, “Most of the time, what people are saying came from themselves. I would maybe ask them, What do you think Americans really think of the Chinese? [The lead actor] Mark Hayashi always said, ‘Oh God, this identity [expletive] is old news, man.’ I said, ‘Then put it in the movie!’”
Practically every scene in Chan is Missing introduces us to new characters orbiting Jo, Steve, and Chan’s life. With each of these supporting performances, we’re treated to a true showcase of the exceptional talent that came out of San Francisco’s Chinese-American acting community in the early 1980s.
In the opening scenes, as we’re introduced to Jo and Steve, we also meet Jo’s niece Amy (Laureen Chew). Chew is magnetic the moment she’s on screen. Her performance makes us question how much of Amy’s jubilant arrogance is the character, and how much is just Chew embellishing parts of herself because the film gives her the permission to do so. It’s a question that needs no answer when her performance is this confident and charming.
Later, as Jo and Steve sit in a cafe, a young woman (Judi Nihei) approaches to inquire about Chan. She then launches into a hysterical–and fascinating–monologue about cross-cultural linguistic misunderstandings. Sure, it’s a little obvious we’re being delivered a message by Wang and co-writer Isaac Cronin, but Nihei’s performance is so awkwardly compelling it makes us overlook the on-the-nose 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 on a show like I Think You Should Leave.
I find no supporting character more engaging than the milk chugging, “Fly Me to the Moon” singing cook, Henry (Peter Wang). He has no qualms proudly voicing his distaste for every item he feels forced to serve American diners. Despite his humorous disgust, we can sense that he has a profound weight on his shoulders. But even within Henry’s clear unhappiness being stuck in the only work he can find, Wang surfaces his inner humor. He cracks wise about the predictability of Americans with silly wit, “You know what? Next time the Americans order this thing again you tell them, ‘We don’t have wonton soup. We have wonton spelled backwards: not now!”
Because of the film’s low-budget aesthetics, Chan is Missing has a documentary feel to it. This makes each scene seem 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 glides into the hall, mariachi music fills the air as dancers ham it up across the floor. Wayne Wang isn’t showing us a cast of characters, but a genuine community expressing their own individual identities in the present moment.
Wayne Wang’s film is a beautifully scripted noir story, filled with themes and metaphors film theorists can chew on. But Chan is Missing truly comes alive through its realistic representation of a community Hollywood wasn’t exploring in 1982. And within that community was a pool of talented actors making interesting choices, regardless of the size of their parts.
Hollywood is still reckoning with the dearth of robust roles for Asian-American actors. So it’s disheartening, but not surprising, that most of the ensemble of Chan is Missing never transitioned to bigger careers. But through Wang’s film, their work has become immortalized. Let it be a cinematic reminder of the massive stock of talent that exists in every community outside of Hollywood’s influential bubble.