Many filmmakers spend their lives working through that one perfect idea—the one that visits them when they are young, wide-eyed, and stoked with the belief that they can do anything. Some succeed, some fail, and others spend their careers making the same film over and over, hoping to realize the vision that has haunted them so. In the case of Wayne Wang, the end came too soon. Wang's CV testifies to one of the strangest career arcs of any current American filmmaker. His first two films, Chan is Missing (1982) and Dim Sum (1985), were brilliant, patient, edgy meditations on the well-worn theme of the immigrant experience. (Both films have recently been reissued on DVD.) But some 20 years later, Wang is much better known for lighter fare: Among his most recent efforts are the feel-good, scruffy-dog tale Because of Winn-Dixie and the J. Lo vehicle Maid in Manhattan —an immigrant's tale of a different sort.
Wang's own story begins in California's Bay Area at the tail end of the 1960s. He arrived there from his native Hong Kong just in time to witness the shedding of old skins and the birth of new identities. Wang studied film at the California College of Arts and Crafts, acquiring a taste for experimental methods. Outside his window was theater of a different sort: strikes and protests that appealed to his idealism, but not to his sense of history—he had come to America to study film, only to wander into a movement-in-progress. The term "Asian American" was a freshly coined replacement for the creepy, old-world categorization of "Oriental." It was now up to this young community, teeming with passion and theories, to figure out what that term meant.
Wang returned to Hong Kong to work in television, but he moved back to the D.I.Y.-friendlier Bay Area in the late 1970s. Studio life frustrated him: There were films he needed to make. After working on some shorts and local documentaries, he began putting together Chan is Missing in late 1979. He wasn't quite sure what it was going to end up being—it was originally intended as a "semi-documentary"—but he possessed a basic vision: He would let Chinatown represent itself. (Up until that time, the most famous filmic rendition of Chinatown was Roman Polanski's Chinatown, which invokes the district as a shadowy noir signifier, rather than a place populated by actual people.) A mix of local oddballs and theater troupers would improvise their way through Wang's threadbare script.
Released in 1982 to great acclaim, Chan follows Jo (Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayashi), two San Francisco Chinatown cabdrivers, as they reconstruct the last days of Chan Hung, a friend who has vanished with $4,000 of their money. Chan had only recently arrived from China, while the squat, lonely Jo and the smack-talking Steve were born and raised stateside. The pair settle into a loose, Charlie-Chan-and-Number-One-Son relationship, and the mystery slowly unfolds according to noir conventions: Somewhere on Grant Avenue—enveloped by fog and busybody merchants—awaits a mysterious woman, an envelope plump with cash, and something resembling the truth.
Characters squawk over each other and scenes descend into hazy communication breakdowns, like Altman juggling three different languages. Long stretches of conversation hang without translation, and those who don't speak both Mandarin and Cantoneseare left to rely on affect and expression to parse clues from riffs. (The DVD's default setting provides subtitles.)
There is an acknowledgment of just how tense and mysterious Chinatown can be, but there is also a joyful tenderness when Wang lingers on a posse of ancient Filipinos at a community center shuffling to a Los Lobos record, or when an extended scene is dedicated to a chain-smoking cook wearing a form-fitting Samurai Night Fever T-shirt. The cook greets each order of sweet-and-sour pork with virginal disbelief: "I really don't get it. Is it really that good?" he scoffs before taking a huge swallow of milk. He gives Jo and Steve no hint of where Chan is, but his spirit—the fact that the cook in the shadows, making your food, could be this charismatic—tips you into a larger mystery. Maybe there is no Chan.
Steve and Jo piece together an incommensurable sketch of Chan Hung: "Too Chinese"; a lover of cookies and mariachi music; a fierce anti-Communist; a murderer or extortionist; the inventor of "the first word processing system in Chinese"; prideful, quiet, and secretive; and "Don Rickles in Chinese." He reminds Steve of his dad ("Fucking embarrassing!"), and he reminds Jo of his estranged, fresh-off-the-boat wife. By the end of the film, when Chan's daughter hints at his whereabouts, you barely care. Chan is Wang's white whale. The film is dedicated to Wong Cheen, who Wang admits is "more of an abstract person."
Bravely open-ended, Wang's Chan accomplished something rare: It celebrated and reveled in the profound shapelessness of identity. Identity is something communities imagine together, a reality encoded in the all-together-now production of the film itself. Twenty years later, Wang's debut feature is still subtler and more provocative than most films about racial or ethnic conundrums; it certainly feels more truthful in its ambiguity.
Wang honed this insight in his second feature, Dim Sum. It is a graceful and surprisingly dark family drama about the quotidian scrapes of a more entrenched circle of Chinatown inhabitants: men too old for existential crises, serious women who only laugh at jokes in Chinese, and the children who take in "American culture through the peephole." It is a tense, fraught version of the predictable generational conflicts that powered Wang's controversial 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan's mothers-and-daughters melodrama TheJoy Luck Club. Despite that film's success, it felt compromised. Instead of the subterranean fears and internalized anxieties of his earlier films, Joy Luck Club offered something very different: the possibility of cheery resolution.
With the success of Joy Luck Club and Smoke (1995), Wang graduated to higher-profile projects in the late-1990s, including another mother-daughter comedy, Anywhere But Here (1999), and this year's remake of the seize-the-day classic Last Holiday. His recent films seemed to ignore the rich themes of his earlier works, as his videos lapsed out of print. (Curiously, he does not appear in the bonus interviews for either DVD.) To many, Wang's journey from Chan—still considered the pinnacle of Asian-American filmmaking—to his current projects seems puzzling. But the re-release of his two best films confirms Wang as a man out of time. Perhaps he found Chan—and himself—too soon.