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Arts and Entertainment

Director Wayne Wang On 'Chan Is Missing' And The Lack Of Asian-Americans On Screen

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When Master of None creator Alan Yang won an Emmy on Sunday night, the Taiwanese-American showrunner put the entertainment industry on blast for the lack of Asian-American representation on screen (both big and small).

"There's 17 million Asian-Americans in this country, and there's 17 million Italian-Americans. They have The Godfather, GoodFellas, Rocky, The Sopranos," he said. "We got Long Duk Dong, so we've got a long way to go." That infamous Sixteen Candles character was just another in a long line of Asian caricatures that goes all the way back to the beginning of film and television.

Ironically, Sixteen Candles was released just two years after Chan Is Missing, a groundbreaking independent feature from 1982 that was conceived to shatter these stereotypes. "In those days all the Chinese characters on TV and in movies were laundry men, servants, cooks or, worse, Fu Manchus and Suzie Wongs. They were all stereotypical images," Chan Is Missing director Wayne Wang told LAist. "There hadn't been a film done that represented Chinese, Chinese-Americans, or [San Francisco's] Chinatown in a very real way."

"In the end it's really about the people in Chinatown."

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And while the excellent Chan, Wang's first feature, was not able to prevent Long Duk Dong from happening, it has since become regarded as the first Asian-American film to make a mark beyond the Asian-American community (it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1995). Made on a $22,000 budget, it received nationwide distribution from New Yorker Films and was well received critically. Roger Ebert called it "a small, whimsical treasure of a film," and Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times that it marked the arrival of Wang as a "marvelous, completely secure new talent."

It wasn't a box office smash, but Chan has since been rediscovered after a 2006 DVD release and a new 35mm print that just ended a run last week in New York City. The film will play in Los Angeles at Cinefamily on Friday night, with Wang in appearance for a Q&A. "It's great that a whole new generation is watching it," said Wang. "It plays just as well."

Chan is ostensibly about two cabbies who search Chinatown for a friend who has disappeared with $4,000 of their money, but its central mystery reveals itself to be cultural dysphoria and the murky concept of identity. It has all the markings of a debut independent feature: several allusions to film history (film noir, French New Wave, The Third Man, Vertigo), dialogue that doesn't always seamlessly slip between casual asides and blunt ramblings about the film's themes, and a cast of unknown actors. "I met a lot of interesting people [in Chinatown] and ended up putting them in the movie, playing themselves," Wang said.

After Chan, Wang's career took an unusual path that continues today. His biggest breakthrough was 1993's The Joy Luck Club, based on an Amy Tan novel about Chinese immigrants, but he defiantly avoided pigeonholing himself as simply an "Asian-American filmmaker." "In this industry you get stereotyped so easily," he said. "After The Joy Luck Club I was getting every bad Asian-American drama with no budget."

He followed The Joy Luck Club with studio fare featuring mainly white actors, and briefly flirted with star-driven productions like Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez and The Last Holiday with Queen Latifah. Wang's latest, While the Women Are Sleeping, is a Japanese film starring Takeshi Kitano.

Wang's career has been a success, but one could hardly say an Chinese-American film movement arose in the wake of Chan. "There never was one because I don't think the Chinese-American audience ever supports movies," said Wang. "Secondly, I don't think Hollywood or the general audience was really that interested in Asian-American stories." Wang thinks the only way these stories could previously resonate with a wider audience was through marquee, big-budget productions like The Joy Luck Club, but doesn't think aspiring filmmakers should give up just yet. "I tell these younger filmmakers we have to make them because... we're the only ones that can represent our own people."

"Our experiences are so different. There's so many of us, and we never see ourselves portrayed on the screen," he said. "There are great books now from every Asian minority, but nobody's willing to make a film from these books."

And while he doesn't like the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, currently the most prominent representation of Asian-Americans on television (he says the characters are "so stereotypical," but did mention that he liked Eddie Huang's memoir, which the show is based on), he's optimistic about the future. "There are so many different venues now with all the streaming networks that I think something will come out of it. I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

Watch the opening scene from Chan Is Missing:

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Chan Is Missing plays at Cinefamily on Friday night at 7:30, with director Wayne Wang in appearance for a Q&A. Tickets $14. Cinefamily is located in the Silent Movie Theater at 611 N. Fairfax Ave., (323) 655-2510.

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