The Transformers: How Chan Is Missing Led to Better Luck Tomorrow Led to Everything Everywhere All at Once

Renee Tajima-Peña

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2023, Volume 76, Number 4

During the past forty years in Asian American cinema there have been three premieres that took my breath away: Chan Is Missing in 1982. Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002. Everything Everywhere All at Once in 2022. Twenty years apart, all signaled that the earth had shifted on its axis and the creative landscape of Asian America was on a collision course with the old, retrograde images of the past. Something gloriously new and essentially Asian American was on the horizon.

Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing, about two San Francisco cabbies on the hunt for their missing friend and their missing four thousand dollars, was the first. I was just out of college and working as the first paid staff person at New York’s Asian Cine-Vision, back in a time when a clueless twenty-one-year-old could run an Asian American arts center. ACV put on the Asian American International Film Festival, a pretty bare-bones affair back then that played in college auditoriums and alternative art spaces, not theaters, with no galas or step and repeats. Wayne Wang let the festival premiere the work print of Fire over Water, the original title of Chan Is Missing, at the Collective for Living Cinema, the epicenter of cool at the time. 1 I knew Wang had been an experimental filmmaker, so when a splash of red and orange spread across the screen, I thought: How cool, he’s bringing that aesthetic into the movie. But then there was smoke. The projector was burning up the print.

I finally got to see the intact and renamed Chan Is Missing at the storied Museum of Modern Art premiere in 1982, where it got a rave from the New York Times film critic Vincent Canby and made independent-cinema history. Chan Is Missing was astonishing, and not only because any Asian American feature at that time was a rare event. Since the early days of the Asian American political and cultural movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there had been a futile search for that elusive thing, a unitary cultural identity: an “Asian American soul” equivalent to African American and Latina/o cultural forms. Back in 1991, when I was a Village Voice contributor, I wrote in the book Moving the Image that the essential Asian American aesthetic is, by contrast, an embrace of both homelands and eclectic diasporic encounters:

The answer, then, lies within Asian America itself, with cinema as mirror and provocateur. Louis Chu’s novel, Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961), later turned into a movie (1989) [also directed by Wang], is so rooted in Chinatown life that its pages literally sing with the distinct language of the Toisan bachelor community. The same literate power [was] evident in Curtis Choy’s emotionally charged documentary, The Fall of the I Hotel (1983), and more poignantly, in Visual Communications’ Pieces of a Dream (1974). By the same token, Wang’s Chan Is Missing, on the surface, seems like a cultural hodgepodge, with traces of film noir, Italian neorealism, the languages spoken being English, Mandarin, Cantonese, a combination of two or more of the above, the title song from Rodgers & Hammerstein. It is eclectic, and it is essentially Asian American. 2

Wang understood that the Asian American “soul” was not a monolith. It was, to coin a term that is now so ubiquitous that it’s the new cliché, everything everywhere all at once. Wang’s own eclectic influences speak to the fluidity of a world culture in which shades of Wong Kar-wai haunt both Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016) and Everything Everywhere All at Once, by the two Daniels: Kwan and Schienert. The Chan Is Missing soundtrack was peak West Coast Asian America eclecticism, at once global and local, with brown-eyed soul, Cantonese rock, and the unforgettable joy of manong dancing to “Sabor a Mí” at a Manilatown senior center. That’s the magnificent cacophony that so many Asian Americans grew up with: for me, a three-generation household with Japanese immigrant grandparents, living in a multiracial community that looked like the crowd at a Tower of Power jam. My weekends were football games, antiredevelopment protests, and nights spent dancing to R&B at house parties.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was in on the jokes. I could see my world projected larger than life. Chan Is Missing was populated by real denizens of San Francisco’s Asian American community playing themselves, or something close to it. After a lifetime spent being bombarded by caricatures, I knew these people on-screen. Steve (Marc Hayashi) was everybody’s crush, Amy (Laureen Chew) was everyone’s BFF, Presco Tabios the community griot, on and off camera, and every Chinatown had a George Woo, played in the movie by none other than George Woo. Chan Is Missing captured my generation’s hybrid experience in a way that was truly Asian American.

If Chan Is Missing felt like a beginning in 1982, Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow twenty years later was a glimpse into the future. I saw it at its hometown Los Angeles premiere, where it played to a packed house at the cavernous Aratani Theater in Little Tokyo. The theater is part of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, which was a flash point during the 1970s anti-redevelopment fight to keep the neighborhood community-based. Just as Wayne Wang taught ESL classes in Chinatown, Justin Lin had been producing community videos down the street at the Japanese American National Museum with documentary pioneer Robert Nakamura—whose Hito Hata: Raise the Banner (codirected with Duane Kubo, 1980) was just about the only Asian American feature that was at all contemporaneous with Chan Is Missing’s release. Just like Wang before him, Justin Lin was an insider who had the confidence to be a provocateur, respectability cinema be damned.

Steve (Marc Hayashi), everybody’s crush, in Chan Is Missing.

Better Luck Tomorrow was a leap forward from the days when Asian American filmmakers bore the burden of representation, required to undo years of being both perpetual foreigners and model minorities, redeemed by uplift success stories. Instead, Lin delivered a bold and wickedly funny send-up of Machiavellian SAT anxieties as familiar to any Asian American kid as the Obon festival in August and moon cakes in September. In the movie a group of overachieving high school students, fueled by boredom and larceny, escalate from test-theft-for-profit to murder and mayhem. The genre-busting Better Luck Tomorrow may have shocked audiences addicted to the model-minority myth, but many Asian Americans delighted in its familiar, if audacious, premise. Wasn’t there a bit of Ben (Parry Shen) in everyone’s heart, and didn’t everybody know a volatile knucklehead like Virgil (Jason Tobin) or a dick like Steve (John Cho)?

Of course, there were naysayers who couldn’t fathom Asian American creatives making a movie that met nobody’s expectations outside of those of their own imaginations. Before its Los Angeles screening, Better Luck Tomorrow had already conquered the Sundance Film Festival, a debut marred only by a white audience member at the Q&A who scolded Lin for having the gall to make his own damn movie without consideration for his “community.” 3 Roger Ebert was in that audience and famously shot back: “Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be!” 4

If only Ebert, a champion of filmmakers of color long before it was fashionable, had lived to see Everything Everywhere All at Once. I was at its hometown premiere in 2022 at the Ace Theater, a majestic two-thousand-seater packed with a giddy crowd in downtown Los Angeles. After Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M. Chu, 2018) and Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)—the latter a Korean film embraced by a community’s transnational hearts—followed by Chloe Zhao’s win for Nomadland (2021), there was a euphoria tentatively building: maybe the industry force field that had so long excluded Asian Americans was finally being penetrated. Now, in 2023, EEAAO has become a supernova. Forty years after Chan Is Missing, twenty years after Better Luck Tomorrow, the future has arrived in a movie that not only conjures the hybridity of Asian American culture but asserts that multiplicity as the quintessence of the American imagination.

Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung) and Steve (John Cho) in Better Luck Tomorrow.

Like Wang and Lin, directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert (“the Daniels”) serve up a movie that is deliciously original, eccentric, and consummately Asian American. It gave me the same joy I felt as a kid watching Flower Drum Song (Henry Koster, 1961), reveling in Asian Americans on-screen flexing their creative power, a guilty pleasure that has survived even my later years of deconstructing its assimilationist fantasy. With screen icons like Michelle Yeoh, James Hong, comeback kid Ke Huy Quan, even newcomer Stephanie Hsu, EEAAO is a reminder that all those years of struggle for representation and dignity were also, I hope, a fight for the right to be weird. Kwan and Schienert nail it: not only the weirdness, but also the emotional layers of family and love, of dreams shattered, then unexpectedly and wildly resurrected.

It should come as no surprise that EEAAO has generated a fiercely polarized online response from the self-appointed cineasts on social media infuriated by so many accolades for a movie that they just “don’t get.” It reminds me of that hapless Better Luck Tomorrow critic—known forever as the “Sundance Q&A guy”—who was so offended about a movie antithetical to his own rigidly narrow grasp (as an outsider) of who Asian Americans are supposed to be. Perhaps, in retrospect, with a fear of replacement in the mix.

What is Asian American about EEAAO? Everything. The Asian American experience is a multiverse of cultural influences and mashups, and EEAAO gets that, with the ever-present contradictions and embrace of family central to the mix. Viet Thanh Nguyen has told young writers of color to write as if they are the majority, to “write as if we ourselves are speaking to ourselves, and let everyone else catch up.” 5  Chan Is Missing, Better Luck Tomorrow, and Everything Everywhere All at Once do exactly that. Revelation and liberation: both are inflection points in the arc of an Asian American cinema that insists on defining its own terms. In Chan Is Missing, Prescoe Tabios advises the two cabbies, “You guys are looking for Mr. Chan—why don’t you look in the puddle?” Today, Chan’s no longer missing. Better luck is already here. If there is an Asian American soul, it is there in that reflection in the water, ever changing, but always visible if you know where to look.

Author’s note

This essay was prompted by my contributions to the forthcoming volume The Golden Screen: The Movies That Made Asian America (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2023), by Jeff Yang, with a foreword by Jon M. Chu.


  1. A “work print” was a duplicate of the film footage that, along with a separate magnetic sound track, was used for editing and could be projected for in-progress screenings.
  2. Renee Tajima, “Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking 1970–1990,” in Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts, ed. Russell Leong (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Visual Communications, 1991), 10–33.
  3. Alex Wong, “How Dare You Represent Your People That Way: The Oral History of Better Luck Tomorrow,” GQ, August 16, 2018, http://www.gq.com/story/better-luck-tomorrow-oral-history.
  4. See the actual video of the exchange at https://youtu.be/LSzP9YV3jbc.
  5. Quoted in Stuart Carson, “Write Like You Are the Majority,” Daily Trojan, October 21, 2020, https://dailytrojan.com/2020/10/21/write-like-you-are-the-majority/.

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