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Lively, enriching tale of the Chinese-American experience; 'Chan Is Missing' uses detective format for humor and insight

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Yes, there's a touch of Charlie Chan in the new movie called Chan Is Missing. But it's a wry touch - the mark of a Chinese filmmaker who has adopted America, and loves both parts of his heritage so much he can't resist kidding them a little.

The filmmaker's name is Wayne Wang, and he grew up in Hong Kong before coming to the United States as a young man. In fictional form, ''Chan Is Missing'' tells what he found in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, where he did community work for a few years after finishing college.

The main characters are a middle-aged cabdriver and his friend, a streetwise and sometimes foul-mouthed young man. They are searching for an acquaintance who has suddenly vanished. They look everywhere: in streets and shops, on the piers, and at the university. They meet a splendid cross section of humanity, and stumble on nooks and crannies they had never dreamed of.

But they don't find Chan. What they do find is a scattered mosaic of clues to the Chinese-American experience - clues as rich and varied and messy and vibrant as life itself, and just as impossible to figure out.

As a commercial movie, ''Chan'' is no more likely than its own wild-goose plot. Using local actors, borrowed equipment, and his own money - along with grants from a couple of generous institutions - Wang completed it on a staggeringly low budget of about $20,000. Despite its modest means and its grainy black-and-white look, it attracted wide attention. After winning high praise at a couple of festivals, it was picked up for release by New Yorker Films, an enterprising distribution company that is often willing to take a chance on a promising new thing.

Result: ''Chan Is Missing'' is doing bang-up business in Manhattan, and wending its way to other cities as fast as its growing reputation will allow. Imminent openings include San Francisco on July 9, Los Angeles and Boston on July 28, and Chicago on Aug. 6, with more to come. That's a lot of exposure for a proudly personal project about a pair of amateur sleuths poking through the ethnic underbrush of California.

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