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‘Chan Is Missing’: 34 Years Later, The Lesson Still Rings True That Low Budget Films Should Take More Risks

With the seminal indie getting a 35mm restoration at The Metrograph, director Wayne Wang reflects on how American independent filmmaking has changed.

"Chan Is Missing"

“Chan Is Missing”

Courtesy of “Wayne Wang Productions, Inc

In 1982 there really wasn’t an established American indie scene.  It was a few years before Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” and Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” and seven years before Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” opened the doors to the ’90s indie boom. There was no real model for Wayne Wang to make “Chan Is Missing.”

“I just wanted to make it, my hope was that it’d play on college campuses and festivals,” Wang told IndieWire in a recent interview. “It came from that ‘rob a bank if necessary’ mentality I think is somewhat missing today.”

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Armed with a $20,000 NEA grant, Wang and his friends marshalled their resources — including an editing room where one of them was cutting porn movies —  and made an offbeat black and white film set in San Francisco’s Chinatown that feels just as original today as it did in 1982.

Wayne Wang

Wayne Wang

Nancy Wong

Wang was surprised when “Chan” got into New Films/New Directors and then picked up by New Yorker Films, but he says he never imaged it becoming an arthouse hit. The memories of long lines outside theaters still shocks him.

“It was a crazy enthusiastic response across the country,” said Wang. “I think [the film] struck a cord with people, because they had never seen real Chinese characters before, they were all Fu Manchus, butlers, laundryman, Suzie Wongs [“The World of Suzie Wong” was a popular novel and movie from the late ’50s], so this was really different.”

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It makes Wang sad that what his film tapped into 34 years ago didn’t bring any real change to there being more Asian American characters in indie films, pointing to Justin Lin’s 2002 “Better Luck Tomorrow” as rare example.

Wang says that he is inspired that there are so many low-budget films being made today, especially by other ethnic minorities, but that he wishes films would take more risks.

"Chan Is Missing"

“Chan Is Missing”

Photo By Nancy Wong

“It’s vital that young filmmakers make the films they want to make and take chances,” said Wang. “I was saying this to Jim [Jarmusch], his films were so different and so clearly structured in a way that was not telling the story in a Hollywood way.  If you are going to do a film for $20,000, take all the chances, have interesting stories to tell, but you don’t have to use that same predictable language.”

The narrative structure of “Chan Is Missing” is a perfect example of this: lacking a central character, the mystery meanders through daily life in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“It’s not just a film about Chinese Americans, it also has a Chinese philosophical structure and bent to it,” said Wang.  The director explains that he was trying to use the construction of Chinese characters and symbols to inspire his narrative, an experiment that didn’t necessarily work as he planned.

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“It was too intellectual, I didn’t know how to translate that into real filmmaking,” said Wang. “In a way, it was all a mistake, but the thing that did work was the whole Chinese idea of what is not there is just as important as what is there.”

This meant putting an emphasis on what is off-screen, in this case the missing Chan, and what you don’t see.

“That idea worked really well with this story, so in a practical way I ended up focusing on that aspect and abandoned some of the original idea,” said Wang.

Wang feels that today’s indie filmmakers often play it too safe and have a fear of making these kind of mistakes and discoveries.

“There needs to be that creatively in the world and independent filmmakers willing to challenge the audience,” said Wang.

A 35mm Restoration of “Chan Is Missing” is playing at The Metrograph in New York through Sunday. Director Wayne Wang will be there in person for a Q&A following the 7pm screening tonight.

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