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Friday, Nov. 13, 2009
'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers'
A balancing act between the East and West
By KAORI SHOJI
Wayne Wang, often described by U.S. film critics as "our resident Chinese filmmaker," has returned —if not exactly to his roots then a turf where he feels especially comfortable. After drumming up ubiquitous crowd pleasers like "Maid in Manhattan" and "Because of Winn-Dixie," it looks as though Wang has decided that his quota of Hollywood obligations has been fulfilled and he can now allow himself to get more personal.
The result is a look at Chinese- American life through the eyes of a Chinese traveler, who's arrived in the United States from Beijing and feels a bit alienated.
"A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" is brilliant without being ostentatious, minimal and restrained, sometimes to the point of rigidity. The whole movie in fact, is designed to reflect the aura radiating from protagonist Mr. Shi (Henry O) and to a lesser degree, the reluctance of his daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu), to accept and embrace her father. The opening scene shows Mr. Shi —a 70ish widower arriving at an airport somewhere in the American West. Yilan picks him up wearing a dark suit that looks too 1990s to be fashionable and too tight to be comfortable, and her forced, small smile shows her stress. Yilan hasn't seen her dad in 12 years and is probably going through a private, inner meltdown, not that she'll let that become an excuse to shirk her daughterly duties. As she picks up Mr. Shi's suitcase and guides him out of the building — the pair come off as a Chinese gentleman fresh out of the Far East, accompanied by his extremely efficient secretary. Their conversation as such, is kept to polite one-liners.
This is the sort of communication (or lack thereof) exchange that Wang draws to meticulous perfection — he's alert to every voice inflection, slightly raised eyebrow, the way Yilan's gaze slides off her father's face and dissolves into air. The relationship dynamics between a Chinese parent and child are spankingly different from an American one and within 20 seconds of Mr. Shi's arrival you know that he and his daughter ain't about to hug or utter endearments — or scream and hurl insults. Though Wang can do that too, with complete adroitness as demonstrated in works like "Anywhere But Here" (1999) that paired Susan Sarandon and Nathalie Portman as a screeching, squabbling (and loving) mom-and-daughter. Mr. Shi and Yilan have none of that emotional spontaneity, and just as it's hard for them to relate to each other, they also keep the audience at a discreet and determined distance.
But between the two of them it's Mr. Shi who wants to break the ice and row out to his daughter in a lifeboat, no matter if she'd rather spend her life encased in a metaphorical iceberg. The condo where she lives (and which she takes her father to) is a testament to sensory deprivation; the living room looks like the reception area of a suburban dental clinic and her own sparse bedroom would depress a Trappist monk. Yilan had gone through a divorce, her husband returned to China and Mr. Shi had come to the U.S. to try and cheer up his only child; but Yilan would rather sit alone in a movie theater than spend time with her father. With not much to do and nowhere to go, Mr. Shi cooks many dishes of home-style Chinese food, most of which end up in the trash after each, near silent dinner with Yilan. For all her ease with the language and the American lifestyle, Yilan just doesn't want to emulate the openness and willingness to communicate that are the defining traits of her adopted country. Mr. Shi on the other hand, is far more relaxed despite his nearly zero English skills. On a local park bench he strikes up a conversation with an Iranian woman whom he only knows as "Madame" — she talks to him in Persian and he responds in Mandarin and the two seem to understand each other perfectly.
Still, Mr. Shi is too concerned about Yilan and too restrained to befriend Madame entirely. He hurries home after each excursion, to shop and cook and wait for his daughter to come home, though Yilan has become too Americanized to appreciate his efforts. (Every night, she eyes the laden table with the face of someone about to pounce on the phone to order out for pizza.) Wang observes the pair, charts their expressions and gently moves the story forward to a sad but hopeful closure. And sometimes the screen seems to blur, like a vision on the verge of tears.