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Two cabbies search San Francisco's Chinatown for a mysterious character who has disappeared with their $4000. Their quest leads them on a humorous, if mundane, journey which illuminates the many problems experienced by Chinese-Americans trying to assimilate into contemporary American society. Written by
Rick Ferncase <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I saw Chan Is Missing when it first came out, about four years after moving from San Francisco to New York. Maybe it was the perspective of a few years away, but this movie seemed to capture the essence of the city and its people better than anything else I'd ever seen (still does). It concentrates on one particular community - the Chinese - but that's fine, because so much of the city's soul is refracted through the settings, the faces, and the maybe above all the voices of the characters.
This isn't the tourists' San Francisco. The settings are humble and everyday: a taxi cab, the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, Richmond District row houses, little Chinatown apartments and small-business offices, the piers, a Philippine elder center. This is what the city looks and feels like day to day to the people who live there - even now, in the era of Silicon Gulch urban redevelopment. Unlike, say, Dirty Harry (in its own way an excellent San Francisco movie as well), everything is filmed at street level: We come to understand the characters' points of view from the perspective their surroundings give them, not from some fancy vertiginous shooting.
Wang apparently filmed in B&W because he didn't have the money to do otherwise, yet one of the strongest visual elements of the movie is the natural light he achieves. The often harsh, pervasive quality of the sunlight is one of my closest associations with San Francisco: It seems to expose everything, bringing the buildings, the hills, the other landmarks down in scale and, in a funny way, making the people you pass on the streets seem more individual and potentially closer to you than they might in another place. Wang's photography perfectly conveys this, and even helps the story along at points.
Wang captures the speech and conversational style of Chinese and other San Franciscans better than anyone ever has, I think. If there's such thing as a true San Francisco "accent," it's what you hear from the balding taxi medallion broker (I think) who appears talking on the phone in one scene (listen to the way he calls the person on the other end "ya dingaling!").
The story is poignant and, despite a few very small missteps, makes its points beautifully about the longings that pull at the hearts of people living in old immigrant communities - including the justified political and ethnic resentments, and little ironic amusements, that help to fuel them. All this is communicated delicately - perhaps why some respondents here think the film meanders. It doesn't - suffice it to say that the two cab drivers' quest for Chan becomes a quest for something more personal.
Chan Is Missing finishes up with a Chinatown travelogue sequence backed by a goofy novelty song from the 1930s (I guess) about San Francisco and all its crazy diversity. An American caricature, yes, but somehow not entirely off the mark either.
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