For a class on religion, race, and American film, I watched several movies that dealt with immigrants and non-Christian religions, with the recognition that American religion is anything but monolithic. Nearly all of these films dealt with the tension between immigrant parents and their children (whether born in the United States or not) as the children seek to rectify their parents’ traditional culture with American culture. So once can potentially see films as diverse as The Jazz Singer (1927) and Dim Sum (1985) telling virtually the same story. Seeing Dim Sum piqued my interest in director Wayne Wang’s films, and so I recently watched his 1982 film, Chan is Missing. Along with this film, I also saw Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2007), based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Though both involve immigrant cultures, their differences make for two unique films.
Chan is Missing marks the birth of Wayne Wang’s cinematic career that has taken an interesting turn in recent years. It focuses on two characters, Jo (Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayashi), as they look for Chan, a business partner with whom they hope to start a taxi service. Speculations about Chan and his whereabouts abound as the film progresses, turning into an actively-reversed Waiting for Godot. Along the way, we get a glimpse into Chinese immigrant politics (though never fully explored) and the tension between traditional Jo and his younger, hipper counterpart Steve.
Shot in black-and-white in the streets of San Francisco, the film is a stark contrast to Wang’s colorful Dim Sum and other subsequent films. There is an immediacy to Chan is Missing that is missing from even a film like Dim Sum. It feels as if we are part of the story, sitting so close to the actors while they argue over Chan’s location: whereas Dim Sum felt more observational, this film feels more participatory and is necessarily an important film in studying Chinese immigrant culture.
In contrast to Wang’s Chan is Missing, we have Mira Nair’s The Namesake, a film that draws on India’s colorful tradition to effect a beautiful film. The Namesake tells the story of Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) and his wife Ashima’s (Tabu) journey to the United States where Ashoke pursues a degree and a professorship. Though they have children, the film focuses on their firstborn son, Gogol (Kal Penn), and the emotional and spiritual struggles he faces as he grows up. While his Indian background presents interesting, unique aspects to this struggle, it also plays out like most coming-of-age stories. Gogol must create his own identity in the face of American secularism and his parents’ desires for him. He decides to adopt his good name, which becomes Nick, majors in architecture, and dates a white, American girl. However, when his father reveals the importance of his given name, Gogol, and eventually dies, Gogol embraces his traditional roots, mourns his father’s death, and marries an Indian girl. Although this may seem like a peaceful return to tradition for Gogol, he finds little peace here as his new wife cheats on him. The film ends on an appropriate note as Gogol rides on a train, a symbol of his ongoing quest for an American/Bengali identity.
The Namesake seems to be yet another straightforward adaptation of the book. It is a gorgeous film but not overwhelmingly so. The filmmakers do not drown us in colorful costumes and ceremonies although they could have. Unfortunately, we are not immersed in Gogol’s spiritual, emotional struggle either. The tension between what Gogol must give up or adapt and what he seeks to embrace seem more implied than expressed, or are simply boiled down to a funny name and a white girlfriend. Nevertheless, the film is enjoyable and bolstered by Penn’s fantastic performance, a break from his more sophomoric Harold and Kumar roles.
Both Chan is Missing (Not Rated, 80 mins.) and The Namesake (PG-13, 122 mins.) are available on DVD. The special features on The Namesake are a nice addition and include segments from a filmmaking course at Columbia University where the filmmaking team discusses the creative process from storyboards to marketing.