Here are two films that at first seem vastly different: Wayne Wang’s debut film Chan is Missing (1982) and a documentary called We Jam Econo (2005) about the California punk band the Minutemen. Though one is a narrative and the other is a documentary, they both tell a story about someone who went missing and the effect this had on those who are left behind.
We Jam Econo tells the story of an obscure rock band from the 1980s that — though they never sold many records — influenced almost every notable punk rocker of that era. The Minutemen’s bass player Mike Watt basically narrates the film — we follow him around in his Econoline van while he tells stories about the band’s humble existence and humorous origins. Though the Minutemen were associated with many hardcore punk bands, they didn’t sound anything like their contemporaries. Their legacy is not their songs, but rather their determination to break boundaries. We Jam Econo finds its emotional core in the relationship between Mike Watt and deceased singer D. Boon. Watt never seems to have recovered from Boon’s absence, and though the film is about a historical moment in time for a band cut short, for Watt the story still seems very fresh. With We Jam Econo we are left to ponder the odd twists of fate and what could have been.
While the Minutemen were driving around in their van in Southern California, Wayne Wang was up in San Francisco making Chan Is Missing. We follow two slacker Chinatown cabbies as they drive around their neighborhood looking for a man named Chan who owes them money. While searching for Chan we are taken through a fascinating tour of Chinatown. The journey is hilarious, but the film is most importantly a search for identity. What does it means to be Chinese American? Wang uses the mystery film genre to pose philosophical questions. Stereotypes are presented, analyzed, and debunked. As the lead characters look further and further for Chan, they ultimately find they know less about themselves. While this low-budget film may feel too cheaply made for some tastes, it’s groundbreaking and, in some ways, a small landmark.
Cine File is a random reference guide exploring the vast catalogue of films available on Netflix instant viewing, with special emphasis on the interesting, the unusual, and the ones that got left behind.