Five years ago, with $10,000 in grant money and a tiny crew of ill-paid Asian American actors, a 30-year-old Hong Kong immigrant named Wayne Wang set out to film an odd, loosely written mystery set in San Francisco's Chinatown. He used borrowed tripods, borrowed lights, a borrowed sound-mixing board, and a rented movie camera that gave him only 10 days to shoot the entire picture. He edited it alone, nights and weekends, working in a tiny rented editing room behind a pornographic movie production studio, and when his film looked finished, he went out to see about getting it shown to a movie audience or two.
The San Francisco film festival never looked at it. The Chicago film festival turned it down. Distributors asked him who on earth he imagined might risk $50,000 to open a 16 mm black-and-white film by an unknown director whose entire cast was Asian. Even Chinese theater owners stayed away from Wang's movie, uneasy about its elliptical references to Chinatown politics.
Then two Manhattan festivals took Wang in. "Chan Is Missing," all 80 minutes of it, with its ad-libbed lines and its off-kilter camera work and its characters who had never acted before in their lives, played for the critics in New York -- and the critics were astonished. Into the reviews gushed the kinds of superlatives movie publicists must daydream about. "Small treasure of a movie." "Delightfully unique." "Diamond-in-the-rough moviemaking." Vincent Canby, The New York Times critic whose stamp of approval bears such momentous weight, used words like "dazzling," "marvelous," "a matchless delight."
Wayne Wang, who had bought a cut-rate ticket to New York and put himself up in a friend's Chinatown apartment where he woke every morning to the smell of barbecuing pork, was an exceedingly hot item. Producers called him. Agents called him. People he hadn't heard from in 15 years called him: Wayne, how are you, we must get together. A distributor invited Wang to his office and watched as Wang gazed at the photographs lined up along the walls.
Bertolucci. Godard. Fassbinder. "All the great art directors were up there. Kurosawa," Wang says. "And he said, you know, 'Do you want your picture up there with the rest of them? I'd like to distribute your movie.' And he's a nice person, and everything. So I said" -- Wang is laughing, delighted still by the memory of it -- " 'Fine!' "
His laugh is charming and full of pleasure, his manner entirely cordial, his slender face set off by roundish yuppie glasses that make him look just a little fashionable. His English is pure American, the last traces of his Hong Kong British accent ground away by 18 years in the United States. Around him spreads a full office, sparsely furnished but set firmly into the high-rent edges of downtown San Francisco, and when he made his entrance in New York last month for the prerelease screenings of his movie "Dim Sum," Wang did not settle into a Chinatown walk-up. This time he got invitation-only screenings and "interview availability" and a Manhattan hotel room, and Orion Pictures picked up the tab.
"Here's a game I play. One thousand. Two thousand. Three thousand." The first five minutes of "Chan Is Missing," with its Chinese recording of "Rock Around the Clock" and the patient, amused voice-over of an aging Chinese taxi driver counting the seconds it would take for his Caucasian passenger to ask about good Chinese restaurants, wrenched open territory that no filmmaker had ever seriously explored before. Over an hour and a half, his camera invading restaurant kitchens and community centers and ill-lit one-room apartments, Wayne Wang used one device -- an unsolved and prismlike search for a missing Chinese man -- to pull outsiders into the lives of immigrant and American-born Chinese.
His title was a mocking salute to Charlie Chan. His close was a scratchy rendition of "Grant Avenue," the painfully exuberant tourist anthem from "Flower Drum Song" (You can eat, if you are in the mood/ shark fin soup! Bean cake fish!/ And the girl who serves you all your food/ is another tasty dish!). He filmed a milk-swigging bilingual fry cook in a "Samurai Night Fever" T-shirt, a serious graduate student explaining the intricacies of cross-cultural misunderstandings, and a disaffected young Vietnam veteran whose epithet-studded jive came straight from Richard Pryor routines. "What kind of Chinese-Chinese are you, man?" the young veteran leered at his uncle, his voice warped into a Hollywood-Chinese kind of pidgin. "P.R.C.? Huh? Taiwan? Pro-Taiwan? Richmond Dist-rict? Oakland Hill-wa? Huh?"
It was complicated and entirely original, with its allusions to Chinese politics and the San Francisco area neighborhoods that have become class and social strata for the Chinese community here. The material had haunted Wang for years, and "Dim Sum," which opens in Washington next month, focuses gently and with more precision on a small San Francisco family straddling the same two cultures. " 'Chan' is sort of like what I call English 1A," Wang says. "I think 'Chan Is Missing' is about how the Chinese see themselves, and it's a broader general picture of Chinatown -- whereas this film is about how these people actually live their lives."
A single row of shoes describes the "Dim Sum" landscape, the worn street slippers of an aging Chinese widow laid out beside the plastic flats of the daughter she wishes to marry off in the interests of tradition. The words dim sum, which Wang has translated literally into "a little bit of heart," are used to mean the miniature Chinese savories that restaurant diners select, plate by plate, from carts pushed along by waitresses. Fluted shrimp turnovers, soft cakes of turnip and rice flour, rolled taro leaves plump with rice and vegetable stuffing -- each piece, with its complicated marriage of flavors, became a small metaphor for the family life Wang wanted to film this time. Here is the Chinese community that is leaving Chinatown behind: the McDonald's lunches, the shopping trip to Saks, the mah-jongg game played with studied carelessness by modern young women stretching their legs on a San Francisco balcony with a very expensive view. This is a portrait from the inside, filmed with deliberate distance from the hilarity and alarmed exotica that has so far marked nearly every Hollywood look at Chinese men and women.
"The whole Charlie-Chan-Fu-Manchu-Suzy-Wong-Yellow-Hordes-of-Masses," Wang says dryly, telescoping his early angry assessment of 50 cinematic years of Asian typecasting. "If they're male, they're usually sly, but sort of stupid at the same time. They're sexless, or if they are interested in women, they're evil. They're perverse. The female characters are exotic, or usually prostitutes, with some kind of mysterious past, at least."
Which is not to say the Chinese pictures of Wang's own youth created characters of infinite depth and complexity either. ". . . So many stereotypes that actually Chinese movies themselves perpetuated, too," Wang says. "The Bruce Lee heroic mythical figure; the sort of Chinese women in Chinese love stories were not any better."
Wang came late to his fascination with the Chinese in the United States; he grew up in Hong Kong, the younger of two sons of an import-export businessman who for many years had kept close business and diplomatic ties to the United States. The neighborhood was bustling and prosperous, and the boys went to bilingual Catholic schools with the understanding that for university work they would leave Hong Kong to be educated either in Britain or America. For Wayne Wang it was northern California, a junior college followed by a private art college in Oakland, and he still remembers his first meal with the Yankee family that initially took him in.
The main course was ox tongue with boiled potatoes and cabbage. The principal reaction Wang remembers was panic, but he ate the entire meal and for the next few years, he says, he set out with a fervor to embrace the new land. Both Oakland's and San Francisco's Chinatowns lay within 10 miles of his home, and he avoided them. He ate a lot of hamburgers, learned how make a tuna-melt sandwich without burning the outside of the bread, and found that after a while even peanut butter stopped tasting quite so odd. "I was mentally prepared to almost say, 'I'm not Chinese,' " he says.
Four years later, by then married to a Caucasian woman and thoroughly immersed in California, Wang found himself spending time with the artists and community activists based in San Francisco's Chinatown. His principal work was painting, big abstract experiments in color and form, but he says he always knew film or television would claim him eventually, and as he worked on his film and slide studies of American images of Chinese men and women, Wang began what he describes as "a cycle where I went overboard to being Chinese."
He moved to a San Francisco apartment with Chinese American roommates and the principal streets of Chinatown a few blocks away. His marriage broke up. He bought Chinese-language newspapers, struggled to remember the characters he had forgotten, and got work in a Chinatown community center teaching immigrants to speak English and make sense of the new culture.
He was intrigued, he says, by his roommates and the other American-born Chinese around him. "They grew up speaking English and watching TV," he says, "and yet at the same time they were more Chinese than I was."
These were men and women, Wang says, who would cook for themselves the homey dinners their parents had always prepared -- beef with broccoli, or meat loaf with salted fish. They worked in Chinatown. They spoke Chinese much of the time. They were intimately entangled with their families. They argued questions of identity and assimilation and ethnic loyalty. This was the community Wang wanted to describe in film, and a story began taking shape when a middle-aged Taiwanese immigrant, an intelligent engineer whose life had apparently taken on political and romantic complications, vanished without warning one day from the community center where Wang taught.
"He had problems because of adjusting in different ways, and all of a sudden one weekend he disappeared, and his wife and kids didn't know where he was," Wang says. "I sort of filed it away somewhere." The idea never left him, and in 1979, with an American Film Institute grant for a picture about taxi drivers, Wang set to work.
The younger of his two drivers became the bitter and intriguing character of Steve -- a "kind of black-influenced younger character," Wang says. Wang had watched the affectations being picked up by Chinese boys from some of the tougher local high schools, and he asked local actor Marc Hayashi to play Steve just that way -- the restless young man mocking the language and intonation of the black power movement.
Wang was not particularly bothered by the fact that Hayashi's background is Japanese. Instinct seems to reign when Wang chooses his actors; Laureen Chew, the star of "Dim Sum," is a young Chinese American woman whose sole acting experience was a small role in "Chan Is Missing." Much of the new picture was shot in Chew's own house, and the movie's mother, Tam, the matriarch battling for tradition under a fac,ade of patient placidity, is played by Kim Chew, who is Laureen Chew's real mother and who occasionally held up shooting to finish cooking dinner. "I think it would be impossible to put a professional actress against the mother and get the resonance of some of those scenes," Wang says.
The other female lead in his movie, the elegant and spectacularly pretty young Chinese woman who announces with some irritation that all Chinese men care about after marriage is "their sons and which movies to Betamax," is a celebrated bilingual Hong Kong movie actress who happens, not coincidentally, to be Wayne Wang's second wife. Her name is Cora Miao, and they met when Wang asked her to appear in "Dim Sum." She still spends much of her time working in Hong Kong, where she can scarcely step out in public without being besieged by admirers. She likes San Francisco very much, both for its abundance of scenic walks and for the relative anonymity and domestic tranquility it offers.
"She really likes being a housewife," Wang says, looking slightly surprised. She cooks for the two of them, and walks the city with him; Wang is a very uneasy driver and they still do not own a car. They speak to each other in Mandarin or English or the multilingual hash that Wang calls "Chinglish." "We truly have become, I guess, a real crazy mixture of Chinese and American," Wang says.
That he seems to have been anointed the new interpreter of this mix -- "Dim Sum" was warmly received at the Cannes Film Festival last May -- is not an unmixed blessing. On the positive side, Wang has wanted for years, he says, and now probably will be able, to direct an updated and culturally truer remake of "Flower Drum Song," Hollywood's one sweet but excruciatingly hokey treatment of the American-Chinese effort to reconcile tradition with the new land. "I have a real love-hate relationship with that movie," Wang says with a broad grin. "I find the movie very corny and I have great laughs off it, and also parts of the movie are very moving to me."
But he worries sometimes about binding himself in his own vision. "I'm sure people are already saying, 'Oh, he can only direct movies about the Chinese,' " he says. "But what people don't realize is that even a character like Geraldine, or a character like Julia" -- the young "Dim Sum" women trying so hard to honor both tradition and their own independence -- "is as American as any character on the screen."