Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Princess of Nebraska: Wayne Wang's Statement

Director's Statement: Wayne Wang

In 1984, while I was casting in Los Angeles, I met an actress from Hong Kong who soon became my wife. We were married at San Francisco City Hall by a judge, with a few very good friends attending as witnesses. We had a small, secret celebration at a vegetarian restaurant that evening, with a dinner of imitation meat dishes that bode good blessings. We didn't inform our parents, as they would have expected an elaborate banquet with all their relatives and friends.

A few weeks later my father called from Hong Kong. “Do you have something to tell me and your mother” he asked. “No, nothing,” I replied.

He pushed on with his questions and I quickly realized that one of the Hong Kong gossip magazines had run a story about our marriage. My father showed up shortly after our phone conversation.

As soon as he arrived, his questions continued, many of them quite personal. We politely deflected as many as we could. During the day, we went to work and my father was alone in the house.

Over dinner one night, he started asking more probing questions, almost like a detective. Finally he said, “What makes you think you can afford to get married You have only $3,000 in your bank account.” He obviously had gone through our belongings, even our checkbooks. “What makes you think you have the right to go through our private things” I said, switching suddenly to English.

My father defended himself in Chinese explaining how he will always be my father no matter how old I am. He felt that he had a right to find out what problems I was hiding from him especially when he suspected I was hiding something from him. I got angrier at him and probably rattled on in English accusing him of being like the communists during the Cultural Revolution, spying on and betraying innocent people, leading many to wrongful prosecutions.

It was only 20-some years later, after my father had passed away, and in reading Yiyun Lis short story that I could finally look at the situation from my fathers perspective. I can now understand my father through the point of view of Mr. Shi. Arriving in a strange land to an estranged daughter he hasnt seen in many years, he begins to peel back layers of his daughters life like he takes apart the Russian nesting dolls on her dressing table. As he prowls around her bedroom while shes at work, he comes upon her unmade bed and notices all the books and objects lying on it signs of a person whose night life is populated by things and not by intimate relationships. As he and his daughter eat dinner and the phone rings, she rushes to answer it and becomes crestfallen when she realizes its a telemarketer. He sees that her love life is not hers its controlled by others.

Its a mystery to Yilans father that he feels compelled to solve. A mystery, when uncovered, reveals both their pasts that they had preferred to bury. Their stories are so intimately and irrevocably linked because they are father and daughter. And neither could escape their legacy of what they went through during the Cultural Revolution.

For many years I have been looking for a way to tell a small personal story about the Cultural Revolution. As Mr. Shi says in the film, Its enough to have survived it. I didnt want to do something too grand or too direct. I wanted to tell a tale around the peripheral and about the after-effects. My first film, CHAN IS MISSING, was based on a Chinese philosophical premise that “What is not there can be just as important as what is there.” I wanted to use that philosophy in telling the effects of a grand human tragedy as expressed through one father and daughter. Sometimes paring things down, or focusing on the small, gets you closer to the truth. As my yoga teacher often comments on my shallow breathing, Life happens in small breaths, if you breathe deep and full.

Author's Statement: Yiyun Li

At the first glance “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and “The Princess of Nebraska” seem to have little in common.

In “A Thousand Years,” Mr. Shi and Yilan are burdened with history. The political history of China, their personal histories and their ways of coping. Despite the difference on the surface, both have to do with escaping into a parallel reality in Mr. Shis case it is his self-deception, and in Yilans case her immigration and divorce – both separation of sorts that allowed her to gain some space to carve out a life of her own.

In “Princess of Nebraska,” Sasha, a pregnant teenager for whom not only the Cultural Revolution but also the Tiananmen Square Massacre belong to the distant past, is self-documenting with little sympathy or attention to spare for others, nor does she feel any responsibility toward anyone other than herself for the most part of the film.

The films, compared side by side, could be easily considered as portraits of different generations of Chinese in todays global world, but to me it is more interesting to see how these characters live with their secrets. As a writer I am always fascinated by secrets and fiction, to me, is largely about stripping away a characters mask and revealing the secrets that the character herself might not be ready to reveal. Yilans affair is kept from her father, but more poignantly she chooses to live with the partial knowledge of his affair without confronting him; while as a visitor to America Mr. Shi, facing an enthusiastic audience, is able to slip into his rocket scientists role easily, a fabrication that allows him to forget momentarily his humiliation. The audience can easily see the secrets Yilans mother had to live with in her marriage to Mr. Shi, and while she is kept absent in the film, her pain comes through in another mothers role: Madam, who makes up a happy American life while living every day of her life with the secret of a daughter lost in the war, and a son lost to American culture.

In “Princess of Nebraska,” even in her most panicky moment, Sasha cannot help but making up a love story to account for her pregnancy, while in real life she is fully aware of her lovers sexuality. X, the karaoke hostess, lives with her own past that she only reveals to Sasha during their most intimate moment. In the end, what connects the two films and all the characters in their different stages of lives, are the secrets the characters live with and the fictionalization of ones own life to cope with these secrets.