Born in Hong Kong and based in America, director Wayne Wang studied photography, film, TV and painting in the US before landing several directorial assignments in his homeland (these included the Chinese episodes of Robert Clouse's "The Golden Needles" in 1974 and a popular TV show based on "All in the Family"). He returned to the US and scraped together $22,000 to complete "Chan is Missing" (1982), a hip, Zen-inspired San Francisco detective story which also carefully dissected prevailing Oriental stereotypes. This landmark independent film became a critical and commercial success for its rare, authentic slice of Asian-American life in a sometimes wildly comic narrative that straddled genres. The film remains an inspirational touchstone for Asian-American filmmakers attempting to get their voices heard in the American cinema.
Wang's second film, "Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart" (1984), again centered on San Francisco's Chinese-American community. The film playfully yet poignantly examines familial relationships, particularly between a Chinese mother and her American-born daughter. It also celebrates Asian cuisine with almost every scene having someone eating something. Wang's next project was a resounding flop both critically and commercially. "Slamdance" (1987), the director's first non-Asian subject, starred Tom Hulce, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Harry Dean Stanton in an uninspired melodrama about an underground cartoonist/artist framed for murder. Wang got back on track as one of America's most interesting independent directors, however, with his fourth feature, "Eat a Bowl of Tea" (1989). Within the world of arranged Chinese marriages, a couple and their meddling families played out the universal comedy of getting hitched.
Wang next returned to Hong Kong to make a scathing satire entitled "Life Is Cheap ... But Toilet Paper Is Expensive" (1990). Initially conceived as a documentary, the feature emerged as Wang's most experimental narrative. He moved decisively toward the mainstream with "The Joy Luck Club" (1993), a highly publicized adaptation of novelist Amy Tan's three handkerchief story of Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters. Produced for Disney's Hollywood Pictures, this critically acclaimed film opened to excellent box office in major urban centers. Disney's powerful distribution arm guaranteed the film wider exposure than any previous Wang feature. That combined with good word-of-mouth made "The Joy Luck Club" a solid success.
Wang turned to a non-Asian theme for his next project, "Smoke" (1995), a relaxed and talky character study set in and around a Brooklyn cigar shop. This unconventional feature boasted the first screenplay by respected novelist Paul Auster and an outstanding cast that included Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker and Stockard Channing. Though as wispy as its title, the film charmed many reviewers. The filmmakers were so inspired by their colorful milieu that they gathered a somewhat different cast to improvise "Blue in the Face" (1995), a whole new movie in the same setting. The eccentric assemblage included Keitel, Michael J. Fox, Roseanne, Madonna, Lily Tomlin and RuPaul. Wang and Auster served as co-directors. The director went on to helm the feature adaptation of Mona Simpson's "Anywhere But Here" (1999) starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman as a mutually antagonistic mother-daughter pairing and "The Center of the World" (2001), a dark look at sexual mores starring Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker.
Wang took a decidedly lighter turn down mainstream avenue with the glossy Cinderella fairy tale "Maid in Manhattan" (2002) starring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes as the requisite mismatched lovers from differing social strata--she a housekeeper at a posh New York hotel, he an aspiring senator. Though more pedestrian than his usual efforts, Wang's direction was serviceable but failed to illicit many sparks from the chemistry-impaired stars. He continued down the mainstream path with his direction of the children's film "Because of Winn-Dixie" (2005), the tale of a young girl and her dog who travel about a small Florida town bringing love, warmth and healing with them. The antithesis of his previous efforts, particularly "Center of the World", the family-friendly movie did keep with Wang's continued fascination with characters trapped in a state of longing.
Wang brought a perfectly light, airy touch to his next effort "Last Holiday" (2006), which cannily cast Queen Latifah as a timid, conservative woman who, upon discovering that she has only three weeks to live, embarks on a final fling to a luxe European hotel in an attempt to live her last days to the fullest. Though the director did indulge in a few ill-advised forays into slapstick, he otherwise found a perfect balance between poignancy and fantasy fulfillment, and his theme of characters dreaming of other possibilities shown through yet again, this time more warm and wistfully than before.