Thousand Years of Good Prayers: Wayne Wange's New Film

Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska with Wayne Wang

In his two most recent films, director Wayne Wang returns to the themes that have distinguished his career and helped define the possibilities of personal cinema.

“Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and “The Princess of Nebraska” mark the seventh and eighth of his Asian-themed films that explore the bonds of family and Chinese identity in the modern world made over the last 25 years. These make up one of the largest bodies of introspective work in independent film.

Wang's career began with “Chan Is Missing” (1982), which featured two cabbies searching San Francisco's Chinatown for “Chan,” a mysterious man whos disappeared with their dough. Episodic and experimental, the film shook up some of the quick-and-easy stereotypes that audiences may have gleaned from Charlie Chan, the faux-Chinese detective so popular in 1930s American film, and his exotic Chinatown of the Western imagination.

“Chan” was followed by the sweet and tightly framed family drama “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart” (1985), in which Geraldine Tam, a dutiful Chinese American daughter, confronts the dilemma of moving out of her mother's house. While Geraldine doesn't want to leave her elderly mother alone, she also knows that she must get on with her own life, and maybe finally marry her fiance, because she wants to, not because it's what is expected of her.

“Chan” and “Dim Sum” both deal with Chinese characters who had been in the U.S. a generation or more, with their children becoming Americanized, for better or worse. They also established Wang's dual themes: the complex dynamics of familial relationships and the position of the outsider in search of identity and/or community.

In A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS and THE PRINCESS OF NEBRASKA, Wang looks at the new emigres, Chinese who have recently come from Mainland China, to study and to work and sometimes to create a new life.

The two films cover three generations; the elderly who have endured a lifetime of sociopolitical upheavals in post World War II China, their children who grew up after the death of Mao Zedong and during the “making money is glorious” era and the youths brought up with little tradition or history, who have voracious appetites for text messaging and other forms or instant gratification.

Both films were adapted from short stories written by Chinese emigre Yiyun Li, who won the Hemingway Foundation-Pen Award for her volume A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. After reading the stories, Wang was struck by the title story's similarity to the quality Ozu films he's admired when he was a film student.

The Stories

In A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS, the elderly Mr. Shi (Henry O) arrives from China to spend time with his divorced daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu), hoping to help her sort out her life in this strange new country. That, after all, is his duty as a parent. Yilan, although polite, doesn't feel like being the dutiful daughter. Unlike Geraldine in DIM SUM, Yilan can't wait to be rid of her parent, whose need to pry into and control her like becomes a nuisance, even if he does lovingly cook up multi-course meals for her at the end of the workday. Where sharing meals served as familial and cultural bonding in DIM SUM, it is seen as an intrusion for Yilan, who longs to have her own private life back again.

Despite going through Yilan's things while shes at work and trying to pry information from her, Mr. Shi cannot understand his daughter or the rift between them. The only person he shares some connection with in this cold new universe is Madam (Vida Ghahremani), an elderly but vivacious Iranian woman living with her son and his family. They begin to meet regularly on a local park bench. Without a common language, they resort to expressing themselves to one another in a mix of their respective languages and broken English. While they seem to communicate with each other easily, Mr. Shi and his daughter find themselves at an impasse. The problem is generational and geographical; it is also in the language, as one day Yilan reveals to her father that expressing herself in English is far easier than in Chinese.

There is wry humor in Mr. Shi trying to understand his daughter, as well as this country she has adopted as her own. There is also a sense of seeking clues to a mystery. As Wang explains, I wanted it to be a mystery that Shi comes to solve. Arriving in a strange land to visit a strange daughter he hasnt seen in many years, Shi begins to peel back the layers of the life like he takes apart the Russian nesting dolls on her dressing table.

In THE PRINCESS OF NEBRASKA, Sasha (Ling Li) is a foreign exchange student who finds herself pregnant. Shes the new generation of China, unmoored to traditions and history. As she says, “In America I learned a new phrase, 'moving on.' Tomorrow I can start a new page.” She travels from Nebraska to San Francisco to get an abortion, but in her exploration of the city in the next 24 hours she learns that turning a new page doesn't necessarily mean turning your back on the past.

Wang elaborates: “Sasha is trying to remember her past and identify a path for the future. She is a different casualty of the Cultural Revolution. A new generation, illiterate to their own history who know nothing but 'moving on' and 'making money,' Sasha and her contemporaries are perpetual chroniclers of their own experiences, as if they needed to justify their existence and identity.”

The Characters

As a member of the elder generation, with his courtly manners and conventional expectations, Mr. Shi is the most traditional of the three Chinese characters. He cannot understand why Yilan is divorced, why she resists letting him into her life. Yilan has been brought up traditionally, chooses to live and work in the United States and in suburban America, no less, where we dont get a hint of the existence of a Chinese community. Recently arrived, Sasha is young and brash. It's clear from what we know of her background that she was already exploring alternative lifestyles in China.

Contrasting Pace and Style

A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS is made up of long takes and reflective moments. Wang consciously wanted the film, and the audience, to have breathing space. THE PRINCESS OF NEBRASKA evokes a more breathless feeling as Sasha careens from one escapade to another, punctuated by video snippets taken with her cell phone camera, sometimes recording the passing landscape, sometimes addressing the boyfriend she'll probably never see again.

As he has done before, with CHAN, DIM SUM, SMOKE and BLUE IN THE FACE, Wang has made two films, back to back, which can be seen as related pairs exploring similar themes, with one more tightly structured, the other looser and more experimental.

“It's a way to look at a similar theme in two different styles,” explains Wang. “It's like playing the same piece of music, one more classical and the other more like a jazz riff.”