A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Magnolia Pictures
Wayne Wang/United States 2008

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 daughter’s happiness and love life; she in turn harbors resentment over secrets from her father’s 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 daughter’s 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. Shi’s 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.

Mr. Shi’s character himself is also a bit of an enigma. He is observant, intelligent, and philosophical – a former scientist. However, the film provides a fair amount of humor at his expense over his struggle with the English language. (”Man … seeking … man!” he exclaims aloud while poring over the classifieds, which deservedly elicited a laugh from the audience.) It is also surprising that a man hailing from Beijing, a highly modernized city, would arrive in Spokane, Wash. like a deer in the headlights, confused about the prevalence of answering machines. His naivete becomes somewhat of a running joke in the film, culminating in the welcoming of two representatives of the Church of Latter-Day Saints into the apartment. However, his wide-eyed optimism begins to fade as he inevitably experiences a more complex reality of American culture.

Despite the contradictions in his character, Henry O’s performance as Mr. Shi is immensely compelling, almost to the point of rendering Yilan’s own plotline irrelevant. Her tumultuous love life is not nearly as interesting as her struggle with her aging father, and the inevitable cultural divide that widens each year that she stays in America. The generational and cultural clash for Chinese Americans and their traditional parents has been dealt with many times in movies, but A Thousand Years of Good Prayers rarely becomes overly cliché. Wang excels at telling a simple story well, with a sweet, unobtrusive score, tight, controlled cinematography, and a great deal of heart. Unlike most directors today, Wang understands the scale of his own work and keeps A Thousand Years of Good Prayers to a very appropriate running time. The film reveals itself bit by bit, much like the Russian nesting dolls Mr. Shi finds on his daughter’s nightstand, and contains enough tender and truthful moments to withstand its assorted flaws and inconsistencies.

© 2008 Maggie Glass. All rights reserved.

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