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Friday, Nov. 13, 2009

Hollywood fails to take the Chinese out of Wayne's world

Wayne Wang has a special position in American cinema — though drawing story and characters with the compassionate warmth that has become his trademark he remains an outside observer, perched on the periphery of many screen lives.

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"That's because I've never become part of the American fabric" says Wang, whose latest work, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," had U.S. critics remarking that the director has gone back to his Chinese roots after a stint of increasingly generic Hollywood works like "Maid in Manhattan."

Wang laughs: "I'm not sure I agree with that assessment either," during a promotion trip to Tokyo for his new film. "I came to the U.S. from Hong Kong when I was 18 . . . so to me, mainland China is still pretty much of a mystery and my generation (Wang is 60 years old) still sees the repercussions of the Cultural Revolution. And the Hong Kong where I grew up is no longer there. So what exactly are my roots? It's hard to say."

Wang adds that he was educated by English missionaries in an international school and, from his earliest years, he didn't see himself fitting into the Hong Kong community.

"I suppose there's the language issue too. Often, my thoughts would be composed in Chinese but I would prefer to express my emotions in English, just like Yilan in this story."

Yilan (played by Faye Yu) moved to the U.S. from Beijing when she was a student and can't bring herself to be anything other than restrained and formal in the company of other Chinese — in this case her father. "I understand that completely," says Wang. "So when I read the story by Yiyun Li (from which the film was adapted), it just clicked."

Like her character, novelist Yiyun Li went to the U.S. to get her doctorate in biochemistry, but got sidetracked with creative writing. "Yiyun's writing is a revelation for me," says Wang. "Like myself, English is not her native language but it is her chosen, adopted form of expression. The people she creates are people I know and understand — in varying degrees. They're pulled between two nations, two cultures, two entirely different modes of existence."

In "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" Yilan's dad, a self-proclaimed "rocket scientist" from Beijing, comes to a suburb in the American West to see his estranged daughter, but his attempts at communication are no match against her silent resolve to part with her Chinese background.

"I understand the father of course, but I'm also close to Yilan," says Wang. "Becoming a Chinese American is one thing, trying to become an American living alone in a suburb — like Yilan — is something else."

Wang is a longtime observer of the U.S. Chinese-American community, especially in his home city of San Francisco. "The whole dynamic of Chinatown has changed. Before, the immigrants were from Hong Kong and Taiwan, now they're mostly coming in from the mainland and are wealthy entrepreneurs, or businesspeople on their way to success. The shops and restaurants in Chinatown have changed hands and are now run by these Chinese. So the food tastes different, the atmosphere on the streets is different, and only a few Chinese families live locally anymore. The community feeling is gone; young families are eager to head out to the suburbs, buy huge homes and stock their garages with SUVs."

In the film, Yilan has no Chinese friends who flock to her house to cook and chatter and visit with her father in the manner of say, the characters in Wang's 1989 work "Eat a Bowl of Tea."

Says Wang: "Once you embrace the American suburban way of life, there's no going back. You get the big house and multiple cars, but then something is lost. I think that's why kids in the suburbs just shut themselves in their rooms with Facebook. Or if they're lucky, they can get their parents to drive them to the mall to see their friends. For me, that's a sad way to live."

By way of quiet protest, Wang is making the move from the outskirts of inner city San Francisco to "deeper within" — to Nob Hill — and dreams of getting rid of his car. "I don't know whether that's the Chinese in me or the urbanized American. But I do know I breathe easier in the city, where I can walk and look at people. And that's what this film has been for me too, like a comfort zone; where the material lets me think more, to observe and spend time with the characters and the space they inhabit."

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