Sitting in a booth in a dive bar in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the same one where he shot scenes for his 1985 gem, “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart,” Wayne Wang was still frustrated. We had spoken five years earlier, when he expressed dismay at how little had changed in Hollywood and the indie scene since the 1982 release of “Chan Is Missing,” his seminal neo-noir that was the first Asian American film in modern cinema to gain widespread distribution.
Now, things are a little different — for Wang’s own legacy, for a new generation of Asian American filmmakers, for the state of movies. And yet, the elder auteur, whose journey since that breakthrough took him across art-house avenues into Hollywood studios and back out, is still unsatisfied. When it comes to Asian American directors, “none of the filmmakers have really dug in to say these are our own stories and these stories are on one level universal, another level, very specific to our culture,” he said.
On the 40th anniversary of “Chan Is Missing,” Wang, sharply dressed and sprightly at 73, is experiencing a belated moment of wider recognition. He’s celebrating two retrospectives, in Berkeley and Los Angeles, a restored director’s cut of his audaciously experimental “Life Is Cheap … But Toilet Paper Is Expensive” (1989), and the Criterion Collection releases of “Chan” and “Dim Sum.”
One would be hard-pressed to find any filmmaker who not only daringly chronicled Chinese life in a time when it was unthinkable in American cinema, but also parlayed all that into one of the more eclectic careers in Hollywood, that includes two entries (“Chan” and “The Joy Luck Club”) on the National Film Registry. There are the Hong Kong films (“Chinese Box”) and the New York films (“Smoke”); the near career-ending erotic picture (“The Center of the World”); the pure Hollywood period (“Maid in Manhattan”); and the return to his culturally specific indie roots (“Coming Home Again”).
“It comes from the fact that I was born and brought up a mess,” Wang said, explaining the zigzagging. After immigrating to the Bay Area from Hong Kong in 1967 at 18, he was suddenly enmeshed in an America of Quaker families, counterculture figures, the Black Panthers, and urgently political-minded folks in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Wang, who is working on an adaptation of a short story by Yiyun Li and a small-screen series about a Chinese American family, spoke about his career, going to Francis Ford Coppola for advice, and working with Jennifer Lopez. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Forty years later, “Chan Is Missing” still feels timeless in how it reckons with Chinese American identity politics. Did you intend to make a film that put a stamp on Chinese American identity?
I didn’t think like that. I just wanted to make an interesting, complex film. More what the Chinese and the Chinese American community is, which includes the new immigrants. It was more that than identity. Because mainstream America had no idea who we were.
And yet the film is adamant about not trying to offer a neat depiction of who or what the community is. It feels unencumbered by the idea of making a political statement.
Because everybody around me who was Asian or Chinese or Japanese wanted to make a film about how badly we were treated. There was always a message. That gave me a clear picture of where I didn’t want to go. I wanted to do something a little more complicated, a little more questioning rather than saying, “We were really badly treated on Angel Island” [the immigration station in California].
I only had a script for the structure of the film. Most of the time, what people are saying came from themselves. I would maybe ask them, What do you think Americans really think of the Chinese? [The lead actor] Mark Hayashi always said, “Oh God, this identity [expletive] is old news, man.” I said, “Then put it in the movie!”
You then made a string of films about the Chinese diaspora that eventually led to “The Joy Luck Club.” Did you want to bring your sensibilities to the mainstream?
It was a pretty conscious step.
It was a studio film with an all-Asian cast in 1993. Did it feel like a breakthrough at the time?
Absolutely. People were calling from Hollywood, and I knew I had to grab that energy pretty quickly. And that energy wasn’t so much “Chinese American films are really going to do well for us.” But that was also when I said, between “Chan,” “Dim Sum,” “Eat a Bowl of Tea,” “Joy Luck Club,” I’ve got to do something else. Otherwise I’m going to get locked into this one box. I’d been working on a script with Paul Auster, “Smoke.” Miramax said, “What do you want to do next? We’ll just give you the money.”
It’s striking that with your success, you did a small movie. You didn’t seem to be trying to climb the ladder.
I wasn’t trying to climb the ladder. I just saw Francis Ford Coppola in [an interview], talk about how the thing that drove him was basically fear and not knowing what he was doing. I was kind of functioning in that same way. I wanted to get into a film that I don’t completely understand.
You and Coppola were both San Francisco-based filmmakers. Were you friends?
My office was in his building, and we would run into each other and have little talks. When I shot “Smoke,” I was working with Harvey Keitel and Bill Hurt. I went to him [Coppola] and asked, how do you work with actors? I hadn’t worked with big Hollywood stars, and I was freaked out by it. Francis basically said, if you find the right person, you give them something to do, and they’ll be fine.
I really respect [Hurt], but he’s a nut case in some ways. Throughout the first half of the shoot, we got to be pretty good friends. Then we had three days off, and he came back and had a football helmet on. I went to put my hands on his shoulders, and he said, “What are you doing? Are you trying to push me down the stairs?” So he turned like that. And the football helmet, he said, “I need to protect myself today, you’re going to hit me.” [Laughs] But he [was] one of the greatest actors, so subtle and so sensitive to everything.
What led you to eventually do a full-on studio film like “Maid in Manhattan”?
“Center of the World” got such bad reviews and everybody hated what I did that I couldn’t get a meeting in Hollywood. One bad film, especially an edgy sex film, you get written off. And the producers of “Maid in Manhattan” came calling. It was probably the most difficult thing I ever did. First day, the executives said, [Ralph Fiennes is] losing his hair in the front — it’s not very good. What can we do? They were more concerned about Ralph Fiennes’s hair.
How was it working with Jennifer Lopez?
It was difficult. She went out on dates every night with Ben Affleck. And in New York [where filming took place], there’s a law where the paparazzi could be in your face shooting stills. The only time they could not do it is when we’re doing a real take. So during rehearsals, they were literally right here, and there were a lot of them.
During this period, were you at peace with doing purely studio films?
There’s always that question. I knew in the back of my head, I could always leave and go back to what I did before. It just got a little difficult to get off that Ferris wheel.
As you’ve returned to indie films, the landscape for marginalized voices like yours has changed.
Did you like “The Farewell?”
I like it better than the other films, maybe only because it’s more similar to mine. I’m prejudiced that way. It’s about family. But I don’t see anybody trying to do something in a more brave way. They’re still trying to please executives and then to please an audience more, rather than going out there with whatever budget they have to do something that’s challenging.
The director and actor Justin Chon was in your most recent film, “Coming Home Again.” What do you think of his films?
I think “Gook” was the most challenging film out there. Justin has got it in his heart to do it. And I feel the pain every time I talk to him working on something. Because the producers want a certain thing, and it’s really hard for him.
But do you empathize with Asian American filmmakers trying to appease studios or audiences to break through?
I talked to [the “Fast and Furious” franchise director] Justin Lin about this. He said, every year the studios make maximum 15 films [each] or something, and if one is made by an Asian American, that is progress. I tend to agree. But at the same time, was there another film completely outside the system that’s challenging the system or doing something really different? No.
Not just Asian Americans, it’s across the board. Formally interesting and challenging films are just not being made. All the films are dumbed down to what I would call a Disney level. [Laughs] That’s all dangerous in the long run.
The way “Chan Is Missing” happened — made for less than $25,000 on weekends by a crew with day jobs — could a film like that be made now and find an audience?
If you get a grant or an independent investor, I think it could still happen again. When you are dealing with interesting characters and a certain kind of humanity, and it’s written well, you can get there. I have a strong belief in that. I have to. Otherwise I would probably just cut meat or something and be a butcher. [Laughs]