Why Don’t You Look in the Puddle?

The Postmodern Mysteries of Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing

Photo by Nancy Wong, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When film buffs discuss their favorite examples of neo-noir, Chan Is Missing from 1982 is probably not the first title that comes to mind. Classics like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown might be more obvious choices, but Wayne Wang’s lesser-known debut is no less impressive, thanks to its distinctly postmodern approach to noir conventions.

Shot on 16mm black-and-white film, Chan Is Missing follows two Chinatown cab drivers: middle-aged Jo (Wood Moy) and his hotheaded nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi). Seeking to carve out their own slice of the American dream, the mismatched partners decide to start a taxi company of their own. To obtain the necessary license, Jo and Steve hand over their life’s savings to a trusted middleman—the unseen title character, Chan Hung. However, Chan disappears mysteriously, along with all of their hard-earned cash.

In true detective story fashion, Jo and Steve hit the streets of San Francisco and cross paths with a variety of intriguing, often peculiar characters. Each encounter highlights a different side not only of Chinatown1 but of Chan Hung himself. Every time Jo and Steve think they’ve uncovered the truth about Chan’s disappearance, a new clue takes them in an unexpected direction.

What really happened to Chan Hung? Did he abscond with their savings? Did he flee the country fearing for his life? Or did he suffer a far more sinister fate? In the end, the film denies both the protagonists and the audience any definitive solution to its mystery, with the complete truth about Chan Hung’s whereabouts forever remaining in the shadows.

Released on April 24, 1982 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Chan Is Missing became a surprise arthouse success, garnering a limited theatrical run and recouping its scant $22,000 production budget. Critics raved about the film, with Vincent Canby in The New York Times calling the movie “a matchless delight” and Roger Ebert proclaiming it “a whimsical treasure of a film.” In the intervening years, Chan Is Missing has been credited as the first Asian American independent film, its landmark status cemented by its selection for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1995.

My interest in Chan Is Missing began when I was a master’s degree student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. After reading Leonard Chang’s mystery novel, Over the Shoulder, I began to wonder whether any other Asian American had tried their hand at the detective genre. To make a long story short, not only did I discover the existence of an emerging group of Asian American mystery writers, I also stumbled upon a VHS copy of Wayne Wang’s 1982 film.

Of course, the title and premise of Chan Is Missing immediately invite comparisons to another detective—Charlie Chan—a connection entirely intended by the filmmaker. When asked by Diane Mei Lin Mark in 1984 how he chose the name “Chan” for the title character, Wang’s reasoning was straightforward enough: “Because it’s a common last name and also because of Charlie Chan.” Created by writer Earl Derr Biggers, the infamous Chinese sleuth debuted in The House Without a Key in 1925, before appearing in five additional novels. The subsequent film series took off due to the success of Charlie Chan Carries On in 1931 which starred Swedish actor Warner Oland in the title role, a performance he would reprise in 15 sequels2. After Oland’s death in 1938, the mantle of Charlie Chan was passed to two other white actors: Sidney Toler for 11 films and Roland Winters for six more after that, concluding with The Sky Dragon in 1949. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that a mystery film featuring a predominantly Asian and Asian American cast would seek to critically engage with a franchise best known for its racist yellowface casting. References to Charlie Chan abound in the film. For example, the pairing of Jo and his nephew Steve calls to mind the father-son dynamic of the Chan films, a resemblance that does not go unnoticed by the characters. “That’s Mr. Charlie Chan,” Steve says of Jo, “and I’m his number one son, The Fly.” With each passing invocation, it becomes more obvious that Wang does this as a means to heighten the contrast between his more realistic Chinese American characters and their patently phony predecessor.

In the end, it’s Philip Marlowe, not Charlie Chan, that Chan Is Missing resurrects, albeit in the unlikely guise of an aging Chinese American cabbie. The elder Jo searches for the good in Chan Hung, whereas the more hotheaded Steve views their missing business associate as nothing more than a crass opportunist:

JO: You know, it’s hard enough for guys like us who’s been here so long to find an identity. I can imagine Chan Hung, somebody from China coming over here and trying to find himself.

STEVE: Aw, that’s a bunch of bullshit, man. That identity shit, man, that’s old news, man. It happened 10 years ago.

Here, Jo reveals an affinity for Chan Hung, as deep-seated questions about identity come to the surface. The notion of an identity crisis is an age-old subject in Asian American literature and cultural criticism, but here Wang gives voice to it through the language of noir. Although Jo is by no means a hardboiled detective by trade, his unflinching loyalty to Chan, despite Steve’s skepticism, bears a striking similarity to that of Philip Marlowe in both Raymond Chandler’s and Robert Altman’s versions of The Long Goodbye. Like Marlowe’s relationship with his missing, presumed-to-be-dead pal, Terry Lennox, Jo’s faith in Chan Hung is summarily criticized at every turn, yet he redoubles his efforts at finding the truth, no matter the personal cost.

Wang is careful to align our sympathies with Jo through voiceover narration, a frequent noir convention heard from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity to Edward Dymtryk’s Murder, My Sweet and beyond. Jo’s often contrapuntal voiceover, which helps to clarify, to some degree, the morass of conflicting stories told about Chan Hung, takes on an increasingly exasperated tone as his investigation wears on. By the end of the film, the voiceover contains an undeniably noir-like tenor of despondency:

This mystery is appropriately Chinese. What’s not there seems to have just as much meaning as what is there. The murder article is not there. The photograph’s not there. The other woman’s not there. Chan Hung’s not there. Nothing is what it seems to be. I guess I’m not Chinese enough. I can’t accept a mystery without a solution.

Of these absent clues, the missing photograph at Chan Hung’s apartment—its very existence signified only by the visible remnants of the tape marks used to affix it to the wall—serves as a figurative stand-in for Chan himself, as he can only be traced to the lives of those he had touched in mostly small, seemingly insignificant ways. This sense of haunted space that permeates the entirety of Chan Is Missing coupled with the postmodernist theme of “a mystery without a solution” greatly informs Wang’s revisionist take on the detective genre.

What begins as an investigation into the disappearance of Chan Hung soon becomes an extended peek into the lonely life of Jo, whose continual expressions of kinship with the missing man suggest they are, in fact, mirror images. The film foreshadows the uncanny correlations between the two during a visit to the Manilatown Senior Center. Jo and Steve question an employee (Presco Tabios) who ends up discussing the plight of Chan Hung’s musician pal who woke up one day to find himself physically impaired. This inexplicably disabled friend would often stare at puddles in the street, claiming that the only person who could fix him was the man in the puddle. The employee tells Jo and Steve, “You guys are looking for Mr. Chan—why don’t you look in the puddle?” This bit of dialogue resonates with the film’s overall narrative arc, as Jo’s search for Chan ostensibly reflects his personal journey of self-discovery, one reinforced by the film’s stylistic debt to classic film noir.

Although plenty of scenes in Chan Is Missing take place in sunlight to reflect the day shifts of its taxi driver protagonists, the night scenes feature incredibly black sequences, suggesting the same sort of pervasive darkness that saturates the frame in a typical film noir. Throughout the movie, Wang and director of photography Michael Chin employ these murky compositions in order to emphasize common noir metaphors for entrapment, claustrophobia, and paranoia.

In his 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir,” Paul Schrader explains the motivations for this stylization: “Compositional tension is preferred to physical action. A typical film noir would rather move the scene cinematographically around the actor than have the actor control the scene by physical action.” Chan Is Missing operates in a similar fashion, especially after Jo discovers a gun under the front seat of Chan Hung’s car. Prior to this sequence, the only music in the film has been the diegetic sound of Cantonese pop songs filtering from the radio in Jo’s taxi. However, the moment the gun is revealed, composer Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo’s non-diegetic score kicks in for the first time via a single music cue which gets progressively dissonant during the ensuing montage of paranoia and confusion. This chaotic stretch of the film then segues into a full-blown chase sequence, which bears a remarkable resemblance to scenes in both Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep.

Wang intercuts Jo’s “chase sequence” with scenes of him appearing visibly nervous in his taxi and constantly checking his rearview mirror. The viewer can see a portion of the car riding Jo’s bumper, but the driver’s face remains obscured. In the cross-cut foot chase through Chinatown, Jo appears to have an unseen stalker, but we cannot be entirely sure whether this man means Jo harm or if he is even following him at all. Could it even be Chan Hung? Jo never finds out. Unlike Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in Kiss Me Deadly, Jo does not get the upper hand and surprise his pursuer. Instead, Jo flees without ever confronting the man, if he even exists.

In his 1981 study of film noir, The Dark Side of the Screen, Foster Hirsch explains that “reflections in mirrors and windows suggest doubleness, self-division, and thereby underline recurrent themes of loss or confusion of identity.” Similarly, Chan Is Missing boasts an arresting opening scene that emphasizes a recurring theme of duality. After the opening credits, the movie begins with a shot of a windshield of a moving cab, but we cannot see the driver. In fact, for the first 40 seconds of screen time, actor Wood Moy’s face remains obscured, until the “white” reflection of the San Francisco sky meets the “black” shadow of a nearby building, creating a veritable yin and yang symbol on the windshield. It lasts only for a moment before Jo’s face is revealed. Although Stephen Gong acknowledges the symbolic nature of this scene in Debbie Lum’s 2006 documentary on the making of Chan Is Missing, no one mentions its visual double at the end of the film.

During the finale, Jo speaks in voiceover: “The problem with me is that I believe what I see and hear. If I did that with Chan Hung, I’ll know nothing because everything is so contradictory. Here’s a picture of Chan Hung, but I still can’t see him.” The film cuts to a Polaroid of the two together, the only existing photo that Jo has of Chan Hung. The staging of the Polaroid is significant: On the left side of the picture, Jo stands in the sunlight dressed entirely in white (or, at the very least, his wardrobe reads “white” due to the monochrome nature of the film stock), as the light takes a sweeping L-shape. On the right-hand side stands Chan Hung, dressed in black with light-colored pants, his face hidden in shadow. The placement of the figures in the scene as well as the light/dark dichotomy suggest a purposefully staged, albeit modified, yin and yang symbol.

I am no expert in Taoist philosophy, and I have no desire to sound like I am reciting a fortune cookie-style proverb à la Charlie Chan. But from what I understand, the concept of yin and yang represents the interdependency of seemingly opposing natural forces. Symbolic of both balance and change, it suggests that opposites exist only in relation to one another, co-existing within a larger, fluid system of being.

From the standpoint of genre, the allusion to yin and yang certainly highlights the interdependency of the detective and the mystery—in this case, hunter and prey are forever linked in a single photograph. But the symbolism runs deeper than that. In his search for the truth, Jo, the native-born Chinese American comes to identify with the struggles of Chan Hung, a “fresh off the boat” immigrant who fought but ultimately failed to make it big in America. Our hero discovers at the end of his quest not Chan Hung, but a dark mirror image of himself. After all, has Jo—as an American—fared any better than his “foreigner” friend? Why hasn’t Jo achieved the American dream? And more provocatively, has his dogged pursuit of his uncanny double only resulted in shattering his own fragile self-conceptions of identity? In the end, the profound mysteries of Chan Is Missing never cease, inviting repeat viewings for all who seek the truth.

  1. While racist portrayals of Chinatown have existed since the founding of these communities in the United States, Hollywood cinema has only furthered the stereotype of Chinatown as a sinister, foreboding space—most notably in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Ironically, the Chinatown of Polanski’s film barely factors into the story as a physical location. According to the film’s logic, one need not even visit to fall victim to its inscrutable, all-corrupting power. The Chinatown of Chan Is Missing is a far cry from the exotic hot bed of criminal activity shown in numerous Hollywood films. In Wang’s version, its residents are depicted not as a sinister, homogeneous mass but as a supportive community with a remarkable complexity, full of different languages, class backgrounds, and political ideologies.
  2. While three earlier Charlie Chan films starred actors of Asian descent—George Kuwa in The House Without a Key, Sōjin Kamiyama in The Chinese Parrot, and E.L. “Ed” Park in Behind That Curtain—none of these actors were given a chance to reprise the role. Longtime “Number One Son” Keye Luke later provided the voice for Charlie Chan in Hanna-Barbera’s The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan.