By N.P. Thompson
Northwest Asian Weekly
Filmed in Spokane, Wash., Wayne Wang’s new film “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” marks the director’s return both to independent filmmaking and to telling stories about the Chinese experience in America.
Wang made a name for himself with “Chan is Missing” in 1982, a low-budget feature about a couple of Asian American cabbies circling San Francisco’s Chinatown in search of the mutual friend who robbed them. For the next decade, culminating in a 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club,” Wang brought Asian-themed domestic chronicles from art houses to the mainstream.
In recent years, however, he drifted into ill-received commercial ventures (among them, the Queen Latifah remake of the ’50s British comedy “Last Holiday”) but now comes full circle with this small-scale study of an estranged father and daughter reuniting.
The retired scientist Mr. Shi (played by the Bellevue-based actor Henry O) and his financially successful yet isolated daughter Yilan (Faye Yu) have been apart for 12 years. As the movie opens, he’s arrived from Beijing for his first visit to the States. A woman passenger who’d sat next to him on the plane, and who loved the tales he had to tell about aerospace engineering, bids him farewell with more tenderness and enthusiasm than he receives in greeting from Yilan. “Very spirited,” Mr. Shi observes of his initial contact with Americans. Yilan undercuts his appraisal with: “Don’t jump to conclusions too soon.”
That terse exchange pretty much defines “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.” Mr. Shi, even at his advanced age of 79, still responds to the world with wonder. As Yilan drives him from the airport into town, Mr. Shi’s face registers a sense of beauty at the strip-mall sights adorning either side of the boulevard. Henry O, who was awarded Best Actor at the San Sebastian Film Festival for this role, uses his eyes so superlatively that we, too, can share in Mr. Shi’s bemused optimism. Looking at it his way, the trashiness of urban sprawl acquires a kind of splendor.
Yiyun Li adapted the screenplay from her short story, yet doesn’t significantly expand the scope of her main characters’ world. The majority of the film takes place within the confines of Yilan’s boxy condominium. Mr. Shi home cooks elaborate meals for two, yet the cold Yilan resists his efforts to discover why her marriage failed. “I’m enjoying life,” she states, none too convincingly, her eyes downcast.
When the movie does reach beyond condo walls, it intermittently lifts off. The Swiss cinematographer Patrick Lindenmaier, shooting in America for the first time, clearly loves the expressive possibilities of getting outdoors, as is evident in a glorious wide-angle shot of bridge spires spanning across a distant mountain range, or in placing Mr. Shi within the landscape of a train depot, where the hand-painted art deco signage on crumbling brick buildings looms behind him.
Plus, there’s more going on in Mr. Shi’s minimalist encounters with random Spokanites than in the protracted parent-child conflict. In a meeting with two Mormon youths (the scene’s gentle hilarity brings to mind Hal Ashby’s “Being There”), one of the clean-scrubbed proselytizers tells the elderly Chinese man, “You look like you’re a little worried about something.” Mr. Shi responds with, “America like cold water,” as a prelude to talking about the liver chi, while, of course, the lads would rather chat about Joseph Smith.
Best of all, there’s Vida Ghahremani as an Iranian widow whom Mr. Shi befriends in a park. He speaks in Mandarin, she in Farsi, yet in the bits of English they share and in gestures, they connect on a deeper level. Wang doesn’t subtitle their scenes together, so that their attempts at transcending the language barrier are ours as well.
Ghahremani’s “Madam” (we never learn her name) cloaks herself in a shawl of maroon and black paisley, and she stretches out syllables (“I love Ah-merry-kahhh”) voluptuously. The incandescent Ghahremani combines earthiness and elegance in a style reminiscent of, say, Anna Magnani or Simone Signoret. The movie livens up considerably when she’s onscreen; it loses much without her. ♦
“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” can be seen starting Friday, Sept. 19, at Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E., Seattle, 206-781-5755.
N.P. Thompson can be reached at email@example.com.