Chan Is Missing
A mystery man, a murder, and a wad of missing cash—in his wryly offbeat breakthrough, Wayne Wang updates the ingredients of classic film noir for the streets of contemporary San Francisco’s Chinatown. When their business partner disappears with the money they had planned to use for a cab license, driver Jo (Wood Moy) and his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi) scour the city’s back alleys, waterfronts, and Chinese restaurants to track him down. But what begins as a search for a missing man gradually turns into a far deeper and more elusive investigation into the complexities and contradictions of Chinese American identity. The first feature by an Asian American filmmaker to play widely and get mainstream critical appreciation, Chan Is Missing is a continuously fresh and surprising landmark of indie invention that playfully flips decades of cinematic stereotypes on their heads.
The Criterion Collection presents Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing on Blu-ray in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. The high-definition master is encoded at 1080p/24hz.
There are no details around the master and/or the restoration, though I wouldn't be surprised to learn if the original negatives were used for the base scan. Having said that, it’s still clear we're looking at an older master and not a new scan. Criterion has done what they can with it, and when all is said and done I’d say the presentation still looks fine, appearing to have been encoded well with an adequate film texture present. Unfortunately, there are some digital artifacts that still manage to pop-up throughout.
One of the bigger issues is just how noisy the image ends up being. Grain has been captured and can look natural a lot of the time, but several shots, especially a prolonged one of a body of water, look buzzy. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with Criterion’s encode but is instead something that is baked into the master they were supplied. Tight patterns also deliver shimmering effects, popping up in grates in windows, the patterns in a tweed jacket, or the thin lines found on a collar of a dress shirt, and many other areas. Sadly, they're usually pretty obvious when they do show.
While that is all unfortunate the overall image still looks fine enough. It’s very sharp and highly detailed, with wonderful contrast. Blacks and whites look strong and the range in the grays is impressive, leading to nice shadows. The restoration has also cleaned things up and damage is not a major concern.
In the end, it’s still a pleasing enough picture, but the film would have most certainly benefitted from a newer scan at the very least.
Presented in lossless PCM mono, the film’s primarily English soundtrack sounds surprisingly good. Dialogue sounds sharp and clear with decent fidelity and dynamic range, and the same can be said for the background noises from the city. I assume the audio is mostly live, recorded on location, but there doesn’t appear to be the expected issues or artifacts. There is also no notable damage.
As a note, the English subtitles for translating Mandarin and Cantonese dialogue do not come on by default. This appears to be intentional, as Wang talks about how he didn’t initially present translated dialogue (or at least didn’t translate some of it) in one of the included interviews. They can be turned on through the menu or using your player remote.
Criterion ports over—along with what appears to be a re-release trailer—a 29-minute making-of documentary created for the 2005 DVD edition entitled Is Chan Missing? featuring cast and crew members recounting the making-of the film. The documentary gets a little into the San Francisco Asian theater scene, from where a few of the cast members were plucked, and touches on what sounds to be an early, more experimental cut of the film. There is also discussion around the impact the film had and why it’s so important that the film captures the diversity of the Chinese community. It’s a typical DVD produced documentary but still worth viewing.
Missing from the previous DVD are a couple of interviews featuring the film’s stars but Criterion does add three new(ish) interviews, all featuring director Wayne Wang: one between Wang and critic Hua Hsu, another between Wang and director Ang Lee, and then another created in 2021 for The Criterion Channel featuring Wang and critic Dennis Lim. The interviews run 34-minutes, 25-minutes, and 17-minutes respectively. There is some common ground covered between the interviews, including Wang talking about his background, from having moved to the States in the 60’s to getting pretty “heavy” into hippie culture, and how he shifted his major from the medical field to art (to the chagrin of his father). Past that, each discussion veers into somewhat different directions.
His interview with Lim proves to be more of a retrospective through his career, Wang even explaining his move into making commercial Hollywood films like Maid in Manhattan, with Hsu’s covering some of the same ground. Hsu’s ends up focusing more on this film and what Wang was looking to accomplish in his portrayal of Chinatown and its community, Hsu sharing his own thoughts around the film and his reactions to it. His discussion with Lee proves to be an especially engaging one, the two filmmakers talking about their influences (Ozu, unsurprisingly, is a big one for Yang, along with Italian neorealism), where their work fits in relation to both American and Chinese cinema, and talk about filmmakers Wong Kar-wai, Edward Yang, and John Woo. All three interviews are excellent, but I was especially fond of this one.
The included insert then features an essay by Oliver Wang, who delves into the film’s capturing of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Interestingly, Criterion doesn’t include Vincent Canby’s incredibly positive review for the film, which is referenced throughout the features.
In all I would have expected more scholarly additions but the interviews with the director prove to be incredibly illuminating on their own.
Though the presentation is ultimately sharp and clean, it’s sadly held back a bit by a dated master.