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A Thousand Years of Good Prayers/The Princess of Nebraska Review

Director Wayne Wang, best known for his adaptation of Amy Tan’s celebrated novel The Joy Luck Club, has kept himself at the forefront of Asian-oriented filmmakers even while making a variety of crowd-pleasing commercial films (Maid in Manhattan, Last Holiday). This collection of two of his latest films, both low-budget works shot on HD, is a great way to get acquainted with a unique filmmaker of considerable skill. Although the films vary in quality of both filmmaking and performance, there is no denying both pose interesting questions about Chinese or general Asian identity and their place in and outside of China.

The stronger of the two films, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, is a meticulous study of character. In the film, an aging Mr. Shi travels to America to visit his daughter Yilan, recently estranged form her husband. Mr. Shi is played by Henry O, until now relegated to a variety of bit parts in a variety of popular American films (Rush Hour 3 and a recurring role as Monk #1 on The Sopranos). The performance O turns in here should catapult him to the top tier ranks of elderly actors working today. His work as Mr. Shi is mesmerizing, nuanced and understated by positively heartbreaking moments. His arched back, slow walk and fragmented English do not feel staged or rehearsed but absolutely real; when you hear the man speak haltingly but eloquently in an interview included on the DVD, you realize what a remarkable job he’s done.

The film rests on O’s shoulders, as his experience and outlook on America is what we experience as an audience. Left to wander his withdrawn daughter’s (Feihong Yu) home, Mr. Shi isn’t afraid to go out, running into people who regard him with a studied interest but don’t stay to talk for long. He does make one friend in Madam (Vida Ghahremani), a similarly aged, Iranian refugee who likewise speaks in broken English, mixing Farsi in whenever she can’t find the right words.

The scenes between these two lonely people, both widowers, are some of the best in the film - touching without being sugary. Wang elects to approach the film as a minimalist, taking little to no liberties with any stylistic choices. At the end, little is resolved and few secrets are told; but you come to understand Mr. Shi and, to a lesser degree, his daughter. Separated by more than miles but the history of a country still trying to find its footing, the father and daughter are burdened by questions they don’t have answers to.

The weaker of the two films, Wang’s The Princess of Nebraska is hurt by the aggressively hand-held filmmaking that characterizes most of the film. Again dealing with the Chinese experience, the heroine of the film is Sasha (Li Ling), a young lesbian possessing something of great value to a man who takes her in. Sasha is outspoken, disrespectful and genuinely rebellious but in a passive way. She practices prostitution briefly and as a result meets a woman she falls in love with.

Her role as an immigrant and the object of desire she holds sway over are revealed in due time, but the film loses much steam from being somewhat uninteresting. Sasha is not a likeable character and her struggles, although dramatically affecting, didn’t appeal to me on an emotional level. The film’s slow pacing is undermined by the camera work, which suggested an urgency that simply isn’t there. There is a hint of exploration of the new China and how it is perceived by foreigners and a few moments of impressive subtlety (a sit-down with a bartender has a few choice words on family and background), but overall The Princess of Nebraska is a film about rooting for an outsider who feels wrong.

To include both films, handsomely shot by Patrick Lindenmaier and Richard Wong, respectively, in one package is a value and a bargain, especially since the merits of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers far outweigh the mediocrity of The Princess of Nebraska. Taken together, the two films accomplish what Wang might’ve set out to do: they paint a complex portrait of tradition and conflict across generations, one that can be solved with fewer words than you would think.

DVD Bonus Features

Both disks feature the same collection of trailers. Prayers' bonus features include interviews with Yiyun Li and Henry O, less introspective pieces than marketing press work, and a photo gallery of actors and Wang at work. Princess features another interview with Li explaining her intention behind the short story that inspired the film, a photo gallery and two featurettes – “Sasha Video Diaries” and “Ling and Yan Yan – A Day in the Life of Young Chinese Women,’ which are conceptually interesting in shedding more light on a unique cultural experience but feel more labored than exciting.

"A Thousand Years of Good Prayers/The Princess of Nebraska" is on sale May 26, 2009 and is rated NR. Drama, Indie. Directed by Wayne Wang . Written by Yiyun Li (novel and short stories), Michael Ray. Starring Feihong Yu, Henry O, Li Ling, Vida Ghahremani.

May
27
2009
Mark Zhuravsky • Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.

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