A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Wayne Wang/USA/2007) is, according to the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival catalogue, "a film of precise, carefully orchestrated scenes, privileging quietness over emotional fireworks, simple observation over fussy camera movement."
Mr Shi has come to the US to visit his estranged daughter. It has been years since they last met and in that time she has settled into her life in the US. But for her father, the states and her community is an unfriendly place.
Mr Shi is played by the outstanding Chinese-American actor Henry O. Mr O delivers a superbly low key delivery, allowing his body language and restrained delivery to bring depth to his role. It is through the small items (a decorative piece on the door, the lack of a wok) that Mr Wang makes the point that these two have been disconnected for years. She has lost her Chinese heritage.
A Thousand Years is not hurried, Mr Wang does not rush the storyline, taking a look at the small, everyday tensions between the father and daughter. Well paced, the film builds to a dramatic dénouement.
Mr. Shi finds his daughter too quiet, living in a nondescript apartment complex and leading what seems like an empty routine existence. To learn more about her, he goes through her things while she’s at work – listening to a CD on her bureau, looking in a drawer. In the evening he cooks up multi-course dinners for her, and tries to engage her in conversation. Yilan remains cautious; she doesn’t want to share her private life with him. His prying and lecturing are becoming a nuisance.
Mr. Shi cannot understand what is happening to his daughter. He comes from a generation when parents remained part and parcel of their children’s lives as long as they lived. The only person he feels close to in this cold new universe is Madam (Vida Ghahremani), an elderly and vivacious Iranian woman living with her son and his family. They begin to meet regularly on a local park bench. Since they can’t speak much English, they end up conversing in a mix of their own language and a smattering of English words. The miracle is that they seem to communicate easily, in stark contrast to Mr. Shi's inability to communicate with his daughter.
Wayne (named for Hollywood star John Wayne) Wang has had an amazing career. His first feature film, Chan is Missing (1983) and the box office success Joy Luck Club (1993) led to major Hollywood films Maid in Manhattan (with Jennifer Lopez, 2002), Because of Wynn Dixie (about a dog named for the Southern chain of grocery stores, 2005) and Queen Latifah's Last Holiday (2006) and now back to films that hark back to the immigrant's journey with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Princess of Nebraska, also released in 2007.
With these two 2007 films Mr Wang returns to his roots, quietly exploring the generational/cultural shifts a Chinese immigrant finds in modern USA. He is quoted as saying, "I felt I should go back to something smaller, more personal, something about the Chinese-American community. Walking around Chinatown now you feel how the community has changed, which has to do with the new immigrants and how China has changed."
Princess of Nebraska, like A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, is based on a short story by the exceptional San Francisco Bay area author Yiyun Li. Where Thousand Years is quiet and restrained Princess is kinetic and energetic, far more experimental and untamed that its companion film. The story line has Chinese immigrant Sasha (Ling Li) in San Francisco seeking an abortion, fleeing her college in Omaha, Nebraska. The openness of San Francisco provides situations for Sasha to rethink her abortion and her future. Not just experimental in filming, Mr Wang is experimental in distributing this film. It can be seen free on YouTube Screening Room after October 17. This is the first time that an established director has followed the lead of rock stars and made his work available at no cost online.
A Thousand Years will have a slow roll out. Play dates can be found on its website.