THE PLOT THUS FAR
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a small chamber piece about the intricacies of family and the complexities of lives connected to two countries. In other words, it’s ideal subject matter for director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), a frequent specialist in such material. This one’s set in an all-American small city (not named, but filmed in Spokane, Washington), where an all-American woman (Faye Yu) is visited by her very Chinese father (Henry O). At one time a rocket scientist during the heyday of the Cold War, he’s been at loose ends for a while. His main occupations while visiting his predictably busy daughter are cooking her elaborate Chinese meals and trying to counsel her on her love life–he knows a lot about food, not so much about the ways an independent 21st-century American woman might behave. This believable sketch is based on a short story by Yiyun Li, who also scripted, and it hits some credible notes without generating a great deal of cinematic excitement. The subplot, in which the father strikes up a kind of friendship with an Iranian woman he meets in a park (their conversation is fluid, despite not sharing a common language), feels a bit insistent in providing a contrast to the difficult talks between father and child. The inexpensive-looking video photography doesn’t help, either. But it does work as a quiet mood piece, and modest actors’ workshop. Wang directed another film from a Yiyun Li story, The Princess of Nebraska, at about the same time as this film.
WHAT WE THOUGHT
A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS –
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the latest film by Wayne Wang, follows the story of an elderly Chinese man, Mr. Shi (Henry O) visiting his grown daughter, Yilan (Yu Feihong), who lives and works in America. While the cause for his visit is initially unclear, the tension between himself and his daughter is palpable from the minute she greets him in the airport terminal. Mr. Shi expresses worry over his daughters happiness and love life; she in turn harbors resentment over secrets from her fathers past.
As one might expect from the director of The Joy Luck Club, Wang is at his most deft when exploring the relationship between parent and child, those subtle wounds inflicted by both parties under the rubric of care and concern. Mr. Shi is anxious to connect with his Americanized daughter, who lives in a sparse apartment in a homogeneous housing tract in the suburbs. He places a Chinese newspaper on her empty wall, a Chinese decoration on her door, and in a move that is familiar to most of us piles food on her plate, urging her to eat more. For her part, Yilan regresses to the distant adolescent, staying out late and avoiding confrontation with her father.
As father and daughter struggle to communicate, the most beautiful and well-crafted scenes are naturally the more quiet, contemplative ones: Mr. Shi slowly and methodically rummages through the items in his daughters room, in an attempt to make some discoveries of who she really is. Yilan goes to the movies, sitting silently in the theater as the light from the projection booth flashes a rainbow of colors over her head. At night, the pair sit in her bland dining room, making stilted conversation over dinner. Later, on his daily outing, Mr. Shi meets an older Iranian woman in the park and the two strike up a genuine friendship, despite their language barrier. However, not all of Mr. Shis interactions are as nuanced. One of the most forced encounters involves a Kirsten Dunst-type inexplicably taking an interest in Mr. Shi at the pool and striking up an animated, shrill conversation about her days as a forensic scientist.
Auteur Wayne Wang takes a break from making Hollywood films to create a low-budget character piece shot on video about alienation in the U.S. He intended to capture the amorality and aimlessness of the new Chinese youth with Ling. The new Chinese have broken with the past and revere the West and materialism. In other words, Chinese kids are like Western kids.