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Wayne Wang Finds Humor of Culture in 'Chan Is Missing'

January 20, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

"The Joy Luck Club" is such a leap from "Chan Is Missing" that it's hard to imagine they were both created by the same guy.

With "Joy Luck," the scrappy Wayne Wang came in from the cold of the movie-making fringe and entered the soft, rich embrace of Hollywood. The result was a multimillion-dollar testament to big studio style.

This recent release, based on Amy Tan's popular novel, is glossy and slick; it reels out like dozens of other mainstream films with large aspirations, mostly sentimental, and even larger budgets.

Then there's "Chan Is Missing," Wang's earliest feature, made on a $20,000 grant from the American Film Institute in 1982. It's about as glossy as concrete, as slick as a bowl of boiled rice. But "Chan Is Missing" (screening Friday as part of UC Irvine's "Tragedy and Comedy" series) has humor and underdog gumption.

The black-and-white comedy also has a historical distinction: It's credited with being the first U.S. movie to use an all Asian American cast and technical crew.

Wang was also one of the first directors, if not the first, to believe that the lives of Asian Americans were interesting enough to wrap a film around. Wang, in sharply unpretentious ways, takes a quirky and revealing look at much of the diversity of the Asian American community.

The plot is a little goofy, as are the heroes, a couple of San Francisco cabbies forced by circumstance to become Chinatown sleuths. Jo (played with knowing ease by Wood Moy) and his young nephew, Steve (Marc Hayashi), have given Chan, a Taiwanese businessman, $4,000 to grease the bureaucratic path on their way to a taxi license.

When Chan vanishes, Steve, "Americanized" to the core, wants to go to the cops, but Jo talks him into searching on their own. As they stumble through their familiar neighborhood looking for clues, Jo's traditional attitudes butt up against Steve's hip take on things. Steve has no interest in learning about his culture, but Jo pulls him along anyway.

On that note, Wang hurls out Asian American stereotypes and cliches and then bats them away. Even the teaming of Jo and Steve tickles the inscrutable balderdash of Charlie Chan movies, with Steve serving as the "No. 1 son" to Jo's wiser detective. Jo even talks about the old flicks, dismissing them as cheap laughs.

Of course, Wang occasionally resorts to cheap laughs himself. The gags, usually tied to the peculiar folks Jo and Steve encounter, can be pushy. The eccentricity of a cook they question, a guy wearing a "Samurai Night Fever" T-shirt and crooning "Fry Me to the Moon," brings a wince with a smile.

Thankfully, though, Wang's excesses are few, and they don't blight "Chan Is Missing," nor disrupt its ability to amuse and enlighten.

What: Wayne Wang's "Chan Is Missing."

When: Friday, Jan. 21, at 7 and 9 p.m.

Where: The UC Irvine Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium, Campus Drive and Bridge Road.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south to Campus Drive and take a left. Turn right on Bridge Road and head into the campus.

Wherewithal: $2 to $4.

Where to call: (714) 856-6359.

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