Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
"Chan is Missing" is a small, whimsical treasure of a film that gives us a real feeling for the people of San Francisco's Chinatown. And at some point while we're watching this film, we may realize that we have very little idea of Chinatowns, in San Francisco or elsewhere, that haven't been shaped by mass-produced Hollywood cliches like the Charlie Chan movies. The title "Chan is Missing" is almost a pun, because Charlie Chan is missing from this film, and what replaces him is a warm, low-key, affectionate and funny look at some real Chinese-Americans.
The movie's plot is simplicity itself. The heroes of the film, two taxi drivers, go looking for Chan because he owes them some money and he has disappeared. They search for him more out of curiosity than vengeance; they don't really think he intended to steal the money, but they can't figure out why he would have disappeared without paying it. Familiar with the ways of Chinatown, they knock on doors and talk to people and, almost without realizing it, we are taken beyond the plot into the everyday lives of these people.
The movie has an unforced, affectionate sense of humor about its characters. There's a cheerfully cynical analysis of how the annual Chinese New Year's parade has been turned into a competition between factions loyal to Taiwan and to mainland China. There's a philosophical cook, whose resignation in the face of the inevitable sounds anything but resigned. There's a political activist who dissects the politics of Chinatown with a fine-tooth comb.
And there's a fascinating discussion involving linguistics, as a young sociology student tries to explain why Chan recently said "no" to a cop when he meant "yes." We can almost follow her logic: Chan was replying to the truth of his action rather than to the meaning of the question, you see, and so although his taxi did indeed go through the red light, he did not drive it through the red light but was, in a sense, a bystander in the driver's seat as the taxi autonomously violated the law. I'm making it sound complicated; the linguist makes it funny.